Will Hurricanes Help Gulf Oil Spill Clean-Up?

On top of the record oil spill, the Gulf of Mexico is now bracing for what could be a near record hurricane season.

"This is going to make a disaster movie look like a rehearsal," says UC Berkeley School of Civil and Environmental Engineering professor Robert Bea.

Special Section: Disaster in the Gulf

While hurricanes regularly do terrible damage, this year they will wreck containment booms, force clean-up crews off the water, and delay drilling of the relief wells that are now the only hope to stop the leak. There are even been fears hurricane-driven rains could be black with oil, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

"The oil does not get into rainfall. It would not rain oil," says UCLA assistant professor of atmospheric sciences Kristen Corbosiero.

But a hurricane storm surge could push oil many miles inland.

"We saw with [hurricane Katrina] that storm surge went 20 miles inland, so if we bring the oil inland it's going to pollute water supplies, destroy wetlands. It really may be an oily mess for people cleaning up," says Corbosiero.

There is also a possibility hurricanes could actually do some good by diluting the oil.

"It's like a giant mixmaster, it may help alleviate the situation to some degree," says Accuweather meteorologist Joe Bastardi.

There has been one other similar spill in the Gulf. In 1979 about 140 million gallons of oil poured into the water off the coast of Mexico after a drilling rig blowout. A hurricane disrupted efforts to cap that well but the storm also dispersed the oil, diminishing its impact. Forecasters say predicting a hurricane's impact is a guessing game.

"We have to deal with the idea that in a hurricane there are a lot of events that almost turn random because of the power of these storms," says Bastardi.

And even when the oil stops leaking, the millions of gallons already in the water will continue doing harm long into the future. Figuring out just how bad the worst case really is will take years.

More on the oil spill:

Live Blog: BP CEO Faces Congressional Ire
Protester Disrupts Tony Hayward Testimony
Rep. Joe Barton Apologizes to BP's Tony Hayward
  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.

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