News

Storms and spills

By: Tara Skelton / Published: Jun 28,  2018

If you lived in coastal Alabama or Mississippi during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, you might recall waking up to the news that the storm’s winds had pushed a tension leg oil/offshore platform (TLP) from where it was moored for repairs and sent it crashing into the Cochrane/Africatown USA road bridge over the Mobile River. The visual of the enormous rig, usually something seen far off along the horizon, wedged against the suspension bridge was a stark reminder of the power tropical weather can wield. While most incidents are not of this magnitude, every coastal storm that enters our area put residents at risk for a man-made hazard: oil and chemical spills.

An oil rig, pushed off its moorings during Hurricane Katrina, rests against the Cochrane-Africatown USA bridge in Mobile following the storm. (Photo by XJBEI Maillist/Flickr)
An oil rig, pushed off its moorings during Hurricane Katrina, rests against the Cochrane-Africatown USA bridge in Mobile following the storm. (Photo by XJBEI Maillist/Flickr)

As coastal residents, we know the drill during hurricane season. We make our evacuation plans; we stock up on canned goods; we keep extra gas for the car — just in case. But one thing many of us probably do not consider ahead of time is whether we have secured harmful oil and chemicals in our possession. A mental inventory of potential environmental hazards in homes, automobiles and boats and a plan for how best to keep them out of harm’s way should be a consideration in the event of any approaching storm.

A sailboat rests at the edge of a coastal road in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard)
A sailboat rests at the edge of a coastal road in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard)

To mark the June start of hurricane season, the Sea Grant oil spill science outreach team recently released Storms and spills, a fact sheet outlining some of the ways violent storms can trigger spills. Gale-force winds topple storage tanks, releasing whatever chemicals they are holding into the surrounding area unchecked. Storm surge waves have the power to break apart cars and boats, causing them to leak oil and gas. Whether the result is a trickle of oil or thousands of gallons of natural gas, the result is harmful chemicals adding more damage to nature’s path of destruction.

After a coastal storm, oil and chemical spills are often the last thing on the minds of those trying to make it through the following days of cleaning up storm debris, often without power or water. This fact sheet offers precautions residents can take to avoid harmful chemicals that can remain in lingering flood waters. It also provides a national contact number to report oil or chemicals encountered during cleanup in need of attention from authorities. A sample of some of the oil spills both large and small that have accompanied major named storms in the past thirty years rounds out the information.

The Sea Grant oil spill science outreach program, based in the Gulf of Mexico, is dedicated to synthesizing and presenting scientific results related to oil spills around the world. This fact sheet is one of 25 publications both short and more in-depth currently in the team’s library. Team members, stationed at colleges around the Gulf, also share science at free seminars that are usually broadcast online, often as a live webinar. Their website contains all of their products, plus a sign-up form to be alerted when something new comes out. To inquire about receiving hard copies of this fact sheet or any other publication, contact me directly at tara.skelton@usm.edu.

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