Vacation town Gulf Shores glimpses break from spill routine as BP well cap holds

On the 88th day since oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, residents of Gulf Shores, Ala., finally had reason for optimism.
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 17, 2010

GULF SHORES, ALA. -- When Friday dawned, it was still Groundhog Day in Alabama.

There were tar balls congealing in the sand, again. There were more people walking head-down into the BP claims center, holding their tax forms. At the Purple Octopus souvenir shop, the naughty T-shirts and hermit-crab houses still weren't selling.

But there still something different, hopeful about this day. There was news to watch: a cap on BP's leaking well, and tests to determine if it would hold.

If the well really was capped, it still wouldn't mean the end of this beach town's troubles. But it would mean that an end was coming eventually -- welcome news for people who had felt they were doomed endlessly to repeat the same awful day of oil, unemployment and worrying.

And so, on the 88th day, they waited.

If the well stays capped, "we would draw a line on the calendar and we'll say, 'We can be done by this day,' " Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said Friday morning. "Wow, it would be fantastic."

They would have to deal with the oil that's already spilled into the gulf, but they would at least feel like they had escaped from a cycle of cleaning oil off the beaches one day, only to wake up and see they had been hit again. Locals compared their plight to that of Bill Murray's character in the movie "Groundhog Day," who must repeatedly relive the same miserable day.

On the gulf floor, the new cap on BP's runaway well held for a second day Friday -- underwater images showed only water where the gusher of oil had been. On Thursday, underwater submarines closed valves on a new "containment cap," stopping the flow after 87 days.

The question Friday was whether high-pressure oil would leak out underground and bubble up into the gulf. There was no sign that was happening, officials said.

"At this point, there is no evidence that the well does not have integrity," Kent Wells, BP's senior VP of exploration and production, said late Friday afternoon.

But the pressure within the well didn't reach as high as officials had hoped, hitting about 6,700 pounds per square inch, Wells said. If the well was entirely bottled up, officials wanted to see a reading of 8,000 pounds per square inch.

Scientists are now trying to decipher the meaning of a pressure reading in the intermediate range, and every six hours they and BP engineers will be convening to decide whether to keep the well shut in, at the risk of creating new leaks, or open it back up.

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