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The Gulf spill: Katrina in slow motion

 The media, and now the public, have gotten comfortable with the inevitable comparison between Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill disaster that is still going full bore in the Gulf. Both events are disasters. One, natural, and one manmade, but just like Katrina, the Gulf Spill has raised questions about the ability of the Federal Government to deal with a large scale crisis. It’s not clear that the Gulf Oil Spill is President Obama’s Katrina, but some in the administration, and many among the President’s supporters, are worried that it might be.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina took everyone by surprise. There are those who claim the warning signs for disaster were self evident, but that’s one theory I’ve never bought into.  The Hurricane just didn’t look that bad.  That is, up until the last moment, when a combination of a sudden intensification and the breaching of already poorly designed levees caused a disaster which is still hard to fully comprehend. For awhile, it seemed that no one was in charge and that the Federal Government, the only organization with sufficient resources to respond, was befuddled, and what’s worse, didn’t care. Up until this point George Bush was a relatively popular President. After Katrina, it was all down hill.   
The Gulf Oil Spill isn’t Katrina.  But there are similarities. Initially, President Obama showed only a modest level of interest. He acknowledged it as a serious issue, but didn’t, at least not until recently, treat it like a full blown crisis. For example, a request made shortly after the oil started flowing to build a 50 to 100 mile sand levy to protect the Louisiana shoreline has only recently been approved. However, it may be too late to be of much good. This perception of inaction, particularly if the spill keeps gushing oil, has the potential of seriously damaging the Obama Presidency. Just like Katrina did to George Bush.
At this writing, BP, the folks that own the well, have managed to use a pair of monster shears to snip off the well head. They then attached a cap which will be followed by a connection and a pipe to see if some of the oil can be pumped to the surface. Will it work and how much oil it will carry off is still anyone’s guess. But so far, and this is staggering, 38 million gallons of oil are in the ocean, and it’s still flowing.  
Now, you may think this is a Gulf issue, but I don’t think we’re going to be so lucky. The oil slick is moving east and is now approaching the Loop Current. That’s the point off Florida where the oil could enter the Gulf Stream. If it does, this would set it on its way up the Eastern Seaboard. The Outer Banks of North Carolina, because they are almost in the Gulf Stream (which runs a couple of hundred miles off the coast), could see some oil by mid-summer. Our beaches, God willing, may be spared. But no one is certain.
In fairness to Barack Obama, no President has had to deal with a problem quite like the Gulf Oil Spill. It’s the worst of the worst case scenarios. First of all, it’s not really a spill.  The Exxon Valdez was a spill and as awful as it was it only released a finite amount of oil. The Gulf Spill is different. It’s like having a Texas sized gusher one mile below the ocean’s surface spewing out 800,000 gallons of oil a day. And will it stop on its own?  The answer, is no.  That, to a large degree, explains why the Federal Government took a hands-off approach to the spill itself.  The U.S. Navy, while brilliant at deep sea operations, doesn’t know that much about deep sea drilling. The oil industry, on the other hand, does. The technology and resources they can bring to bear, though so far ineffective, are impressive. It’s fair to say that they’re the only ones who can fix it.
For the moment, the concern is over the problem itself, and what can be done to mitigate the damage. This includes the use of oil skimmers, booms, and oil dispersant chemicals.  The latter, by the way, is also a pollutant, though at least it’s not as damaging as the crude oil.  
It’s been argued that the Federal Government wasn’t ready and that its response has been anemic. Unfortunately, that’s probably true.
Hopefully, soon, some combination of innovation and technology will bring this crisis under control.  Reliever wells that will divert the flow, and likely provide a permanent fix, should be finished in August. That means several more months of anguish over the continuing flow of oil into the Gulf. However, when it’s finally brought under control, there needs to be some serious analysis, new regulations, and strong enforcement (similar, perhaps, to the nuclear industry) to make sure this never happens again. This is a must if the President and the Congress have any hopes, ever, of pursuing additional drilling leases along the Atlantic Coast.  
You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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