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

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 17, 2010; A03

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.

One possibility for the lower-than-hoped-for pressure reading is that the well has simply exhausted much of its oil and gas since it began gushing April 20 in the blowout that destroyed the huge rig Deepwater Horizon. Or it could be that the well is damaged and hydrocarbons are surging unseen into geological formations somewhere along the 13,000-foot string of casing.

Retired Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander, said he had asked BP to make additional seismic surveys of the area around the well and increase the level of monitoring of the sea floor with remotely operated vehicles.

At the White House, President Obama called the closing of the cap "good news" but cautioned reporters that "we're not going to know for certain which approach makes sense until the additional data is in."

'Thank you, Lord'

It was another anxious day here in Gulf Shores, a town of 10,000 people at the western end of the gulf's "Redneck Riviera." The weather says July, but the crowds say November: There are empty tables in Daylight Donuts, empty parking spaces under the pastel, stilt-legged beach houses.

Friday, Gulf Shores repeated its cycle, with one eye on the TV.

It started in the 5 a.m. dark at a marina, where charter-boat captains hired by BP were preparing to head out to spot and skim oil on the gulf. Before they left, a few slipped away to talk with mental-health counselors in a secluded part of the marina. They were conflicted about the cap: If it worked, it would be good news, but it would also mean an end to a well-paying job.

"They're pleased for the gulf," said Robin Riggins of the Baldwin County Mental Health Center. But they worry that they can't go back to their old living, fishing. "Their jobs are over. The money ends."

Town official Brandan Franklin said he was actually cheered up by the "Groundhog Day" analogy because Murray's character becomes a better person and eventually escapes to the rest of his life. On this morning, Franklin thought Gulf Shores might be on the edge of that, too: "Everyone has just had a certain peacefulness about 'em" since the well was capped, he said. "Just, I mean, 'Thank you, Lord.' "

At 6:45 a.m., Franklin set off in a Jeep to scan the beach, looking for something he didn't want to see. He did: quarter-size clods of oil in the sand. "We've got a few tar balls," he told Craft, the mayor. There was nothing to do but dispatch a cleaning crew -- the lifeguards were already flying double red flags. This was a beach town with no swimming allowed.

A short distance away, at the little yellow house that is now the local BP claims office, Jeremiah Lett, 29, wasn't feeling particularly calmed by the news that the oil had been stopped. He had worked driving piles offshore but lost his job when the waters were closed off with containment boom.

"I thought I'd hold off [filing a claim for lost income], for people that really needed money," he said. Then he really needed money. "I went to the grocery store. I had 15 dollars. . . . I told my wife, I said, 'You've got to run me down to the BP office.' "

At 9:45 a.m., he went in, past the cop and the sign on the window: "This Facility HAS NO CASH on premises." About 10:45 a.m., he came out without a check. They said they'd call.

At the end of the day, the news was no news: BP officials said the cap was still holding and the pressure readings were still ambiguous.

"As of right now, I'm still happy," Franklin said. "Say it didn't progress very much today -- that's still better than it was yesterday."

On Saturday, they were expecting more oil.

Staff writer Joel Achenbach contributed to this report.

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