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It's just Erin and Dean, not Katrina and Rita

Sam Fletcher
Senior Writer

On Aug. 19 as Dean, the first hurricane of the 2007 season, pounded Jamaica's south coast, residents of Houston some 1,427 miles away were emptying grocery shelves of bread, bottled water, and other essentials on the remote chance that the storm might come ashore in their vicinity.

E-mails were circulating in the city warning recipients to "fill up your car tanks and keep them topped off" because gasoline prices might spike to $6/gal if Dean hit the Texas Gulf Coast. A run on gasoline in the country's fourth-largest urban area just 2 weeks before the long Labor Day weekend that historically marks the end of the summer driving season could do more to drive up gasoline prices than some distant storm.

Meanwhile, most computer weather models showed Dean, then a Category 4 hurricane, would hit Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula Aug. 21. Most forecasters expected it to make landfall in north-central Mexico on Aug. 22. However, government officials in Texas and Louisiana were preparing in case Dean turned north.

Officials in Cameron County, Tex., were urging residents to evacuate "out of the kill zone" ahead of the storm. State officials gathered 1,300 school and commercial buses in San Antonio, as Texas Gov. Rick Perry activated a plan to evacuate elderly and special-needs residents from the Rio Grande Valley if Dean veered northward.

The Texas National Guard already had deployed water rescue teams along the coast before Tropical Storm Erin—downgraded to a tropical depression—made landfall Aug. 16, 25 miles northeast of Corpus Christi. A flashflood watch was issued for 33 Texas counties through Aug. 17 as that storm dumped 4-10 in. of rain along a corridor between San Antonio and Austin. Remnants of Erin poured 7 in. of rain on parts of Houston, causing some flooding and triggering 70 high-water rescues.

David Paulison, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, activated that agency's hurricane-response plan, with disaster teams set in San Antonio and more standing by. FEMA and Louisiana officials were sharply criticized for the haphazard initial government response to Hurricane Katrina, which flooded New Orleans in August 2005. Determined to avoid such condemnation when Hurricane Rita threatened the Texas Coast in September 2005, state and local officials triggered a massive evacuation that produced gridlock on Houston area freeways; people were stranded in summer heat with no water, no food, and no gasoline as the hurricane came ashore more than 100 miles to the east, leaving Houston untouched.

Industry planning
Meanwhile, oil and gas companies have stuck to their long-proven strategy of evaluating risks before reacting to storms. As Erin approached Texas, Shell Oil Co. evacuated 188 workers from offshore facilities and shut in 5 MMcfd of natural gas production from the North Padre Island 927 field. Valero Energy Corp.'s 340,000 b/d refinery in Corpus Christi continued operations "as planned," with no disruption.

On Aug. 20, the US Minerals Management Service said personnel were evacuated from 10 of the 834 manned production platforms and 24 of the 101 rigs in the US sector of the gulf. Officials said 41,967 b/d of oil (3.2% of normal gulf crude production) and 100 MMcfd of natural gas (1.3% of normal production) were shut in.

Analysts in the Houston office of Raymond James & Associates Inc. said, "Most of the majors are not evacuating platform workers, and others are keeping all essential employees in the gulf. The forecasts now suggest that the US oil and gas infrastructure in the gulf are safe as the Category 4 storm heads towards Mexico."

Shell officials evacuated 380 offshore workers on Aug. 18, and were scheduled to bring ashore another 200 on Aug. 19. However, a company spokesman said Aug. 20, "Due to high confidence in the Hurricane Dean storm track over the next several days, we are suspending any further personnel evacuations at this time."

Shell shut in gulf production of 39,000 b/d of crude and 97.5MMcfd of gas. However, Shell said no additional shut-ins were expected. Meanwhile, officials would continue monitoring Dean, as well as Tropical Disturbance No. 37 that "may potentially impact portions of the eastern Gulf of Mexico late this week into next week."

On the other hand, the storm forced Petroleos Mexicanos, Mexico's national oil company, to shut down 140 rigs and move 1,300 workers to land. "It is expected to move towards the Bay of Campeche, where 66% of Pemex's oil production is located," said Raymond James analysts Aug. 20.

(Online Aug. 20, 2007; author's e-mail: samf@ogjonline.com)


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