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Fear of Oil Damage Heightens as Storm ‘Bonnie’ Approaches the Gulf

July 23, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Although Tropical Depression Bonnie isn't expected to do much harm on land, many along the Gulf Coast worry that high winds could intensify damage that has already been done by the oil leak. Spencer Michel reports from Louisiana.
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JIM LEHRER: The storm system named Bonnie took direct aim today at the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It lost some strength on the way, but its approach triggered movements at sea and on land.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports from Louisiana.

SPENCER MICHELS: Bonnie was already churning the waters in the Gulf of Mexico, with winds pushing waves to five feet and more.

Even before the storm crossed South Florida this afternoon, watches went up from Destin, Florida, on the Panhandle to Morgan City, La. Bonnie was expected to gain strength and reach the oil spill site by Sunday as it continued toward Louisiana.

In the Gulf, dozens of vessels began moving away from where the Deepwater Horizon rig once stood, after evacuation orders were issued last night.

But, in New Orleans, retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, overseeing the spill response for the government, said he doesn’t expect the flotilla to be gone very long.

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN (RET.), national incident commander: The intention right now is to put the vessels in a safe place, so they can return as quickly as possible to resume their operations. We’re probably looking at a very limited window, something around 48 hours.

SPENCER MICHELS: The well cap that’s harnessed the gushing oil for eight days will stay on and ride out the storm a mile below the surface.

And while Bonnie passes, work has temporarily halted on the relief well designed to stop the oil for good. Once the sea is calm, BP crews plan to try filling the blown well in two stages, first through the cap, pumping in mud and cement from the top. That could improve chances for the relief well to finish the job from the bottom, channeling more filler material into the main well shaft.

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Given the fact that they’re on scene and ready to go, it will take about 48 hours to lay the casing, and then 48 hours after that, we will — we could proceed with the hydrostatic kill, with the mud going in the top. And, then five to seven days after at, we could proceed, begin the bottom kill.

SPENCER MICHELS: The storm is not expected to do much damage on land, but many along the coast were worried it would amplify the damage from the spill.

And, in Louisiana, with memories of Katrina still lingering, people were preparing for a worst-case scenario. Parish officials, concerned with rising waters from the approaching storm, decided to close several locks on waterways near New Orleans. Boats that had been out skimming oil from the Gulf had to scurry back to port before the floodgates closed.

Many boats here in Saint Bernard Parish have been idle since the spill began, but the stoppage of work in the Gulf has made things even worse.

Lloyd Braud and his son have been among the few that have tried to fish, despite all the hassles with the spill and almost no access to fishing water.

LLOYD BRAUD, fisherman: Last year, you know, it was great days fishing. Today, it’s not so great. It’s not great. It saddens my heart.

SPENCER MICHELS: Marian Alphonso runs in a marina in Chalmette.

MARIAN ALPHONSO, Louisiana: We have no shrimp boats going out, because they can’t go shrimping. So, shrimp boats don’t buy fuel, so we can’t sell fuel. And you have a lot of people that’s not going fishing because of the oil out there.

SPENCER MICHELS: In New Orleans’ French Quarter, the approaching storm didn’t seem to disturb very many residents. At jazz joints like Vaughn’s, where a joyous crowd rocked to the music, signs of the oil spill were everywhere.

Drummer Derrek Freeman, bearing a shirt that said, “Wetlands, Not Oil,” sounded sanguine.

DERREK FREEMAN, drummer: I think it’s just more testing of the resolve of the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

SPENCER MICHELS: But trumpeter Kermit Ruffins sounded a note of optimism.

KERMIT RUFFINS, trumpeter: Let’s help clean up that oil spill, you all. Thank you.

(CHEERING)

KERMIT RUFFINS: Only in New Orleans, baby.

SPENCER MICHELS: So, the beat goes on for New Orleans and the coast, as it prepares for yet one more long weekend.