MIAMI (Reuters) - The Carib Indian god of evil, Hurican, gave its name to the word “hurricane,” and the 2010 hurricane season that started on Tuesday is shaping up to be a monster of potential malignancy.
Hurricanes are feared every year because of the whirling destruction they inflict on human life, property, crops and industry from the Caribbean to the U.S. southeast Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico. The annual hurricane season begins on June 1 and runs through November 30.
But this year experts fear destructive storms could unleash additional havoc on two of the biggest disasters — one natural, the other man-made — ever experienced in the Western hemisphere in recent years, the January 12 Haitian earthquake and the six-week-old BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The risk of hurricanes complicating the catastrophic situations already caused by these two disasters is increased because U.S. forecasters are predicting an extreme hurricane season with an above average number of powerful storms.
“This looks like a hell of a year,” says hurricane forecast pioneer William Gray, who founded Colorado State University’s respected storm research team.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted one of the more active seasons on record, forecasting 14 to 23 named storms, with eight to 14 developing into hurricanes, nearly matching 2005’s record of 15. Three to seven of those could be major Category 3 or above hurricanes, with winds of more than 110 miles per hour (177 km per hour).
The Gulf Coast may see a repeat of the 2005 season when a record 28 storms formed, which killed nearly 4,000 people and caused an estimated $130 billion in total damages. The list included Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans.
Some Gulf Coast officials are already equating the environmental and economic impact of the out-of-control oil spill to a Category 5 hurricane — with lasting effects on businesses, individual livelihoods and natural habitats.
But a hurricane churning through the oil spill zone would disrupt slick cleanup operations and ongoing attempts to control the leaking undersea well — including one currently seeking to place a containment cap over the leak in a bid to capture most of the escaping oil and pump it to a surface vessel. Other ships and surface platforms are drilling a relief well expected to be completed only in August.
“Obviously, the new concern we have is that we are entering hurricane season,” top White House energy adviser Carol Browner told CNN. She said spill response vessels might have to stop working in a hurricane, which would further delay the efforts.
Even more horrendous, forecasters warn, are the prospects of a storm surge — an abnormal rise in sea level created by a hurricane — whipping spilled oil and used chemical dispersants much further ashore onto beaches, vegetation and even homes.
“The foul mix would ride inland on top of the surge, potentially fouling residential areas and hundreds of square miles (kilometers) of sensitive ecosystems with the toxic stew,” Jeff Masters of Weather Underground wrote in a recent blog. But he added a hurricane could dilute the mix with sea water, and wash much of it off the vegetation with rain.
Nonetheless, the thought of a hurricane blasting sticky oil inland is high in the minds of many Gulf Coast residents.
“Even a small, small storm would dump the Gulf into our area which would be more oil than water probably,” said Ann Griffice, a resident of Empire, Louisiana.
Frank Gill, president of the National Audubon Society, sees a risk of a storm-driven surge crashing into the Gulf Coast, “leaving millions of nesting birds vulnerable to oil washing onto breeding islands, beaches, sand flats and mudflats, and seeping into wetlands, and coastal terrestrial habitats.”
In disaster-prone Haiti, nearly five months after a catastrophic earthquake that killed some 300,000 people — according to government estimates — more than 1.5 million quake survivors are still living in over 1,000 fragile, crowded tent camps in and around the wrecked capital Port-au-Prince.
Relief workers are bracing for the extra-active hurricane season and hoping against hope that it does not unleash the kind of flooding and landslides which have killed thousands of Haitians in the past — even without the kind of vulnerable situation that the poor Caribbean country now finds itself in.
“This is a prospect that we’re certainly not happy about ... We don’t want to have a secondary disaster on our hands,” Julie Schindall, international media officer of Oxfam, said.
An evaluation of 28 camp sites where Oxfam works has concluded that thousands of survivors are vulnerable to landslides and flooding due to hurricanes, the organization said. It called on the Haitian government to urgently implement a public communications campaign to inform people about risks.
Extreme overcrowding, little natural drainage and weak land structure were major problems highlighted in the Oxfam survey. Relief groups were working to improve drainage and help the communities to place sandbags around their shelters.
“When you see someone living under a plastic sheet, on a dirt floor, imagine that under a foot of water, Schindall told Reuters, saying there were concerns too that water pooling in the camps would increase the risk of epidemics.
The government and its aid partners have moved some survivors to more secure sites and are clearing storm drains.
U.S. relief and development group Food for the Poor said housing remained one of the biggest needs. “It takes only a few inches of rain to put lives in danger because that’s all that is needed to produce flooding and mudslides,” it said.
In 2004, Hurricane Jeanne killed over 3,000 Haitians. In 2008, hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike killed some 1,000, destroyed 20,000 homes and wiped out 70 percent of crops.
Additional reporting by Christopher Doering in Washington and Tom Brown in Miami; Editing by Eric Beech