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Hurricane, Plus Oil Spill: It's Never Happened, and We Sure Don't Want It To

When a hurricane makes landfall, the winds push the ocean onto the land -- this is called a storm surge. The height of the surge on land is dependent on several factors.

The strength of the wind and the rate of forward motion of the storm are critical in determining how much water is forced up onto the land. The diameter of the hurricane will also determine how much water is blown inland -- the wider the storm, the more water is pushed in, and over a greater area. If the water is shallow offshore, the surge will be deeper on land. Naturally, the elevation of the land is important as well.

The water off the Gulf Coast is shallow, and the elevation inland is only a few feet. This area is prime territory for devastating and deeply penetrating storm surges.

Should a major hurricane push the spill towards the Gulf Coast, there will be nothing that can be done to stop it. No amount of planning or engineering will help. No number of visits to the Gulf by the president or any other official will stop the inevitable. The storm surge will drive the water, and the oil, miles inland. Everything in its path will be coated in a greasy bath of crude.

Even the wind will have oil in it.

In New England, I have witnessed hurricanes and tropical storms that have blown salt spray many miles inland from the coast. The leaves of inland trees eventually turn brown and fall off. In the case of the Gulf, it will be oil spraying the trees, buildings, and anything else in the way. How far inland this oily mess will blow is anyone’s guess, but it could be unprecedented in its economic and environmental damage.

The recovery period after a hurricane can take years. It was 10 years until some communities fully recovered from Hurricane Andrew in South Florida, though some communities never recovered at all. The New Orleans area is still putting itself back together after Katrina in 2005. The recovery period after an "oilicane" will be hard to forecast, but the human and natural loss could be historic.