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Monday, May 3

Update on floods Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia; water main break in Greater Boston; good and bad news relating to Gulf oil spill

Update 12:15 PM EDT
The flooding has moved into downtown Nashville, and heavy rains and flooding have moved to Atlanta, Georgia. From a CNN blog:
[Updated at 10:26 a.m] Parts of downtown Nashville are beginning to flood as the Cumberland River continues to rise, which has overwhelmed the sewer systems, CNN affiliate WKRN reported.

The Cumberland River has reached 50-feet above flood stage and water is beginning to flood from the sewer system onto First Avenue, WKRN reported, noting the sewer overflow is threatening downtown businesses, closest to Broadway Avenue.

"Right now we're watching the river real closely," Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas told News 2. "We're going to continue to keep our fingers crossed that this is going to be as bad as it's going to get, but it's too early to tell. We've got all the right people paying attention and watching. ...

[Updated at 10:14 a.m.] A rain gauge at a CNN employee's home in Atlanta registered 4.5 inches of rain between 6 p.m. Sunday and 8 a.m. Monday.
[...]
[Updated at 9:21 a.m.] Thunderstorms and heavy rain were forecast to continue in north Georgia through the morning, with rainfall of up to one inch an hour possible, the National Weather Service said.
[...]
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(For background see my May 2 post On same day massive flood rains hit Nashville catastrophic water main break shuts off clean water to Boston)

I awakened at 6:30 this morning to pouring rain in Washington, DC. This was not the happy or hopeful kind of rain accompanied by breezes that sweep the air clean. No, this was the stuff that fell straight down like bullets from heaven. The rain tapered off to a depressing drizzle then to sullen silence but the sky is a leaden color, threatening storms later in the day, and adds to my sense of gloom and foreboding as I survey news from around the USA.

The news this weekend from Tennessee, Mississippi, Massachusetts and the Gulf region is so bad that I don't want to start the week on such a grim note. So I will begin with good news:

* Admiral Thad Allen, the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard has been put in charge of the federal government's response to the Gulf oil spill disaster. He was schedule to retire this month but he's been named the National Incident Commander for the federal government's continued response to the disaster, "providing additional authority and oversight in leveraging every available resource to respond to the spill and minimize the associated environmental risks," according to the Marine Log website. See the website for Allen's presser on May 1.

Adm. Allen needs no introduction to those who followed the federal government's response to the 2005 Katrina and Rita hurricanes. He saved the day when he was brought into FEMA to oversee relief efforts in the wake of Katrina, at a time when FEMA head Michael Brown and Homeland Security were stumbling around. And under his command the USCG did a great job in their part of the U.S. response to the earthquake in Haiti.

* The people who worked all night to repair the broken water main in Greater Boston pulled a rabbit out of a hat; they figured how to mend the break days ahead of expectations. The Washington Post reports:
BOSTON -- Government officials threw an "open-for-business" sign on Boston for residents returning to work Monday, as a broken pipe was repaired overnight in the first step toward restoring clean water to 2 million people in eastern Massachusetts.

Officials would not speculate on when the water would be safe to drink again. The pipe in suburban Weston ruptured over the weekend, interrupting the clean water supply.

The next step is a series of tests to ensure the integrity of 10-foot-wide pipe, Massachusetts Water Resources Authority Executive Director Fred Laskey said Monday.

If those tests are successful, the water flow will be turned on and a series of environmental tests will be conducted to determine whether the water is safe to drink.

Laskey won't say when he expects the water supply to be back to normal because he doesn't want to "jinx" the situation.
[...]
Laskey didn't shy from stating the magnitude of the problem created when the pipe burst at a seam Saturday morning. Over the next eight hours, an estimated 65 million gallons spilled into the Charles River and forced officials to tap a reservoir filled with untreated water, potentially contaminating the supply to 750,000 households.

"For the people in the water industry, it is everyone's worst nightmare: to lose your main transmission line coming into a metropolitan area," Laskey said.
The same Washington Post report provids interesting background on the water main break and its implications:
Boston's water runs from the Quabbin Reservoir, in the central part of the state, to the Wachusett Reservoir before being treated at a plant in Marlborough. It travels through an 18-foot-wide pipe to suburban Weston, where it branches off into the 10-foot-wide pipe that broke.

When the breach occurred, the MWRA rerouted the clean water supply through an aqueduct that hadn't been used in decades. It also briefly tapped a reservoir to maintain pressure and meet expected demand across the system. While the water in the aqueduct was clean, the water from the reservoir - which is in open air next to Boston College - is not, prompting the warning to boil water for one minute.

"It's difficult to determine where that line (between clean and dirty water) is so, under the rules, you make the whole district a boil-only condition, even though we know and suspect that there are substantial portions that are getting purely treated water," said Laskey.

The repair was initially expected to perhaps take weeks, but officials diverted a spare coupling from a nearby project and welders modified the parts in a matter of hours.

Officials remained puzzled by the cause because the break was in a stretch of pipe just seven years old. They said they would be checking the blueprints for other similar connections, to assess the risk of another breach.

"It could have been a design flaw, it could have been a construction flaw, it could have been that the product was faulty, it could have been something in our system," said Laskey. "There's just so many different variables that come into play here when you're dealing with that much strength."

Concerned about such a vulnerability in the system, the MWRA has been repairing the original line that supplied Boston, which runs parallel to the new one. That $700 million project started nine months ago and is still three to four years from completion.

"We were working hard to have a solution in place for just this type of problem. Unfortunately, it came up before we were finished," said MWRA spokeswoman Ria Convery.
All right; so that's the good news -- and note the water main break turned up potential problems that it seems were not fully anticipated by those working on the new pipeline system. So on one level the water main break was literally a lucky break, despite its costliness and the threat to public health. Now to the bad news, first from the Associated Press around 2 this morning Eastern Time. For readers who took an interest in my two Convergence posts, kindly take special note of the mentions of the extraordinary and even unprecedented aspect of the rains, and how they converged with the earlier tornado disaster in Mississippi:
Weekend Storms Claim 15 Lives in Tennessee, Mississippi

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (May 2) -- Devastating thunderstorms slammed Tennessee and northern Mississippi over the weekend, killing at least 15 people, five in Nashville, closing scores of highways, and leaving weeks of cleanup for thousands of residents whose homes were damaged.

Thousands were evacuated and hundreds of others were rescued from their homes - some plucked from rooftops - as flood waters from swollen rivers and creeks inundated neighborhoods across the region. Hospitals, schools and state buildings also were flooded.
[...]
State officials in Tennessee said Sunday the flooding is as bad as they've seen since the mid-1970s. Tornadoes or high winds killed at least four people, unexpected flash floods swept some unsuspecting residents to their deaths and an untold number of homes were flooded as urban drainage systems and watersheds struggled to remove the deluge.

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen called it an "unprecedented rain event," but that failed to capture the magnitude. More than 13 inches of rain fell in Nashville over two days, nearly doubling the previous record of 6.68 inches that fell in the wake of Hurricane Fredrick in 1979.

"That is an astonishing amount of rain in a 24- or 36-hour period," Bredesen said Sunday.

At least 11 were dead in Tennessee and four in northern Mississippi. Tennessee Emergency Management Agency officials say there is likely a 12th victim, but a body has not been recovered. The death toll from storms in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee since April 24 has risen to at least 26 with several people missing. Three people in Mississippi were killed when tornadoes hit their homes and a fourth died after he drove into flood waters.
[...]
High winds or a tornado also contributed to the death of Phyllis Ann Sabbatini, 45, in nearby Abbeville, Miss., and a confirmed tornado killed 64-year-old Mary Buxton in the community of Pocahantas, Tenn., about 70 miles east of Memphis. Officials said the other deaths in Tennessee were all due to flooding.

The weekend deaths came on the heels of a tornado in Arkansas that killed a woman and injured about two dozen people Friday. And just a week ago 10 people were killed by a tornado from a separate storm in western Mississippi.

Flooding and damage was so widespread in Tennessee that Bredesen asked the state's Army National Guard to help and dozens of vehicles and personnel were put to work rescuing stranded residents. Nashville Mayor Karl Dean reported more than 600 water rescues in the city alone.
[...]
More than 20 shelters were open around the state, some filled to capacity. Jeff Fargis, with the American Red Cross at the Lipscomb shelter, said officials began turning people away Sunday afternoon, directing them to another shelter. But soon people began returning with news that flooding was so bad around that shelter no one could get there.

Most schools in middle Tennessee have closed for Monday.

The state, an important corridor for commerce, had multiple interstates closed over the weekend including sections of I-40 and I-24. Bredesen said in middle Tennessee alone more than 150 roads were closed.

Gary Kilgore, a truck driver from Peoria, Ill., parked his Crete Carrier truck just off the Natchez Trace Parkway south of Nashville, unable to go any further because of flooding.

"We are trapped like rats in a maze," he said.

A last line of storms was expected to sweep the region Sunday evening. Attention will then turn to damage assessment and clean up.

Bredesen expected a lot of private property damage reports and said there appeared to be widespread damage to roads, bridges and other public infrastructure, including at the state's own emergency operations center where up to a foot of water caused electrical problems and forced officials to relocate to an auxiliary command center.

Bredesen said it will be at least several days until the damage can be thoroughly assessed.
[...]
Longtime state officials say middle and western Tennessee haven't experienced such devastating flooding since 1975 when flood waters inundated the Opryland amusement park east of downtown Nashville.

"I've never seen it this high," said emergency official Donnie Smith, who's lived in Nashville 45 years. "I'm sure that it's rained this hard at one time, but never for this much of an extended period."
An April 29 report says that the American Red Cross mobile feeding units that activated in Mississippi in the wake of the earlier tornadoes was being decommissioned on May 2 but I assume that in light of the present disaster the feedings and other relief efforts in Mississippi will continue. Here is the link to the report, which lists several charitable agencies involved in relief work in the state, and the Red Cross toll free hotline.

As if Mississippi didn't have enough woes, the state's beaches and wildlife are under threat from the Gulf oil spill, as are of course other U.S. states. Here is more bad news on that front from environmental reporter Geoff Mohan writing for the Los Angeles Times:
Gulf oil spill: Alabama governor calls in National Guard

May 2, 2010, 4:04 pm PST

CNN reports that the Alabama Gov. Robert Riley has called in the National Guard to begin preparing barriers against the oil slick drifting toward his state, as well as shoreline areas of Mississippi and Louisiana.

Riley said 80% of the thousands of feet of boom laid down off the gulf coast had broken down because of rough seas and bad weather.

Alabama is home to one of the region's biggest oil ports, Mobile. The state produces about $2.5 billion of oil and natural gas annually, according to state data.
Below I quote extensively from a report on a financial website that provides several details on the widening costs of the oil spill. I don't include the discussion of how the spill is affecting plans for offshore oil drilling in the USA and I don't provide links used in the report. So I urge you to go the Money Morning website and read the rest of the report and other reports related to the spill:
May 3, 2010

Full Cost of Gulf Oil Spill Just Beginning to Surface
By Don Miller, Associate Editor, Money Morning

As oil soiled the shores of Louisiana over the weekend, the costs of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are just beginning to surface.

The effects of the spill, which may prove to be bigger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, are proving to be widespread--and costly.

The oil threatens one of the world's richest fisheries, and could decimate entire species of wildlife and their habitat, while convincing the millions of tourists they attract to take their vacation dollars elsewhere.

It has already injured the prospects and fortunes of the companies directly involved in the spill and may eventually crimp global oil supplies and curtail the efforts of other companies involved in oil exploration and production.

And it could have a chilling effect on President Barack Obama's recently announced plan to increase offshore oil production.

No End in Sight

The monumental battle to staunch the leaking oil goes on but has shown little progress to date.

BP PLC's (NYSE ADR: BP) initial efforts to cap the leak with a submersible proved fruitless, and a plan to burn the oil off with controlled fires was scuttled by rough seas.

Despite a huge effort - described as the largest in the industry's history - to stop the oil from reaching the shore, oil began tainting the Louisiana shoreline Friday. U.S. authorities estimated the oil from the Gulf spill could push "tar balls" into the Mississippi river, and pollute the shoreline from west of New Orleans all the way to the beaches of Florida.

"It is of grave concern," Davis Kennedy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told the Associated Press. "I am frightened. This is a very, very big thing. And the efforts that are going to be required to do anything about it, especially if it continues on, are just mind-boggling."

Meanwhile, the well is said to be gushing out 200,000 gallons of oil per day, rather than the previous estimate of 40,000 gallons per day.

At that rate, the spill could surpass the worst oil spill in U.S history - the 11 million gallons leaked from the Exxon Valdez, which ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989 - by the third week of June.

Eventually, the spill could grow much larger than the Alaska spill because Gulf of Mexico wells contain much more oil than a single tanker.
It now appears the only solution is to drill another well alongside it-a process that could take more than three months.

Extensive Environmental Damage to Hurt Fishing & Tourism IndustriesThe oil slick could become the biggest environmental catastrophe in decades, threatening hundreds of species of fish, birds and other marine life and their habitats.

"This has a danger of becoming an utter ecological disaster," Ken Medlock, a fellow in energy and resource economics at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston told Bloomberg News. "This is going to result in remediation costs and is going to be burdensome, to say the least."

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal on Thursday declared a state of emergency to begin preparing for the oil. He also requested a federal disaster declaration to aid commercial fisherman, providing funds and potentially suspending loan repayments to the government.

Jindal also requested federal funding for as many as 6,000 National Guard troops and demanded extra oil barriers from BP and the U.S. Coast Guard to protect wildlife reserves. He said at least 10 wildlife preserves in Louisiana and Mississippi are in danger and billions of dollars invested in coastal restoration projects may be at risk.

The wildlife preserves nurture Louisiana's $1.8 billion seafood industry, the richest in the U.S. behind only Alaska.

Oil from the leaking well is lighter than the Alaskan crude spilled by the Exxon Valdez, Dagmar Schmidt Etkin, a Cortland, New York-based oil spill consultant told Bloomberg.

"There are going to be more toxic impacts than the heavy black oil you saw with the Exxon Valdez," he said.

Shrimp boats were dispatched to fishing grounds east of the Mississippi River to harvest as much as possible after the state declared an early open to the season to beat the deluge.

"Maybe before it hits inshore, there can be a week or two of harvest and we'll get something out," Mike Volsin who owns Motivatit Seafood told The AP.
The Gulf of Mexico is also home to widespread and lucrative oyster beds and is the only spawning ground for bluefin tuna, which is at the peak of spawning season.

Shrimpers and fishermen on April 28 filed suit in federal court against BP and Transocean Ltd., (NYSE: RIG), the owner of the sunken rig. The lawsuits say Louisiana supplies 25% of the seafood for the continental United States, Bloomberg reported.

The Gulf also generates billions of dollars in revenue from outdoor recreation, sport fishing, and beach tourism, which could be decimated as the crude oil washes ashore.

Oil Companies Hit Hard

The spill could be devastating for the three oil companies most directly involved in drilling at the site 40 miles off the coast.

BP and Anadarko Petroleum Corp (NYSE: APC) partnered in developing the Macondo field where the rig was drilling, joined in the project by junior partner Mitsui & Co. (Nasdaq ADR: MITSY). The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig was owned and operated by Transocean.

The spill represents a huge blow to BP. BP is the biggest oil producer in the Gulf, with output of more than 400,000 barrels a day. It has been a driving force behind exploration in the deepwater part of the Gulf and has made several huge oil finds there in recent years.

BP's costs are now $6 million a day and will rise as it adds people and equipment. It estimates the cost to drill the containment well will top $100 million. The government will also bill the company for any assistance it provides.

BP, Anadarko and Mitsui may have to pay as much as $12.5 billion before tax to control and clean up the oil spill, Sanford Bernstein & Co. analyst Neil McMahon said in a note to investors obtained by Bloomberg.

"The cost for BP will be heavily influenced by how much oil reaches the Gulf coast and where this occurs," McMahon wrote.

BP confirmed Friday that it is self-insured for any costs related to the spill, so the company will have to absorb those charges. BP stock has lost 10% since the rig exploded April 20.

Transocean will announce first quarter results on May 6, but has also lost 11% of its value in the aftermath of the spill.

The estimated costs do not include penalties that may be assessed in potential legal actions that are already pending.

Besides the lawsuit filed by the Louisiana fisherman, the families of some of the 11 workers killed when the rig exploded and sank also have filed suit.

"It is too early to quantify other potential costs and liabilities associated with the incident," BP said in a statement.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the doomed rig lacked a remote-control shutoff device commonly used in other major offshore oil-producing nations, which may serve to increase legal costs.

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