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Hurricane would put salt in Gulf's wound


Folks in the communities along the U.S. Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida are getting ready for their yearly dose of dread.

Hurricane season arrives June 1, and residents of coastal areas will switch on the evening news each night wondering if there will be a small swirl off the coast of Africa that could grow a few weeks later into their worst nightmare.

This year, Gulf Coast residents may want to skip the weather report and pray instead. If a hurricane batters the region in 2010, it could rip into some communities already hanging by a thread. The massive oil slick from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig catastrophe is threatening the livelihood of shrimpers, fishermen and businesses along the hurricane-exposed coast in Louisiana and Alabama.

Many Gulf Coast communities have struggled to get back on their feet since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A big storm in the oily Gulf would be a very cruel blow.

A hurricane this year would pile misery upon misery. If it hits in the midst of the oil spill cleanup, who would blame the people in towns like Venice, La., from throwing up their hands and walking away? How many times can you get knocked down before conceding that enough is enough?

Experience from Katrina, though, shows that isn't likely to happen. Shrimpers and oyster fishermen are a tough breed. Many along the Gulf Coast have harvested seafood from the Gulf for decades, some carrying on a lifestyle that has been in their families for generations. When Katrina blew through and took their homes and boats, many dug in, cleaned up and got back to work.

But they have never faced a hurricane season with their morale already battered by a catastrophe. In normal times, there's enough stress this time of year. Add hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil to the Gulf, and hurricanes become even more of a potential horror.

If they didn't have enough to worry about, Gulf Coast residents are dealing with the inevitable circus that surrounds any environmental disaster.

The spill triggered the expected rush of attorneys. There is no more certain guarantee that lawsuits are about to flood the courts than oil gushing into a waterway. In New Orleans, lawyers have established their ground zero in the high-stakes derby for tens of thousands of potential plaintiffs.

And we all get to be entertained by the show of hand wringing in Washington. Puffed-up politicians have hauled oil company executives before Congress to answer sternly delivered questions. President Barack Obama, no slouch himself in the art of blame, has angrily chastised the executives for pointing fingers at each other for the cause of the spill during the congressional hearings that he labeled a “ridiculous spectacle.”

All of this, of course, is paving the way for more government regulation of the oil industry, which may not be a very popular move among the people most affected by the spill. Big oil provides a lot of jobs in the region. If a clampdown leads to cutbacks in jobs, more regulation will only make things worse.

Meanwhile, because of a gigantic risk management mishap, there is a very large oil slick sloshing around the Gulf of Mexico. Unless the companies responsible for putting it there figure out a way to clean it up quickly, it has the potential to destroy livelihoods, kill wildlife and reshape cultures along parts of the coast.

As for the good folks of the Gulf Coast, all they can do is pitch in and help clean up the mess, pausing occasionally to remember the good old days, when hurricane season was all they had to worry about.