This time, it's not a hurricane that threatens to wreck their livelihoods -- it's a blob of black ooze slowly making its way toward the Gulf Coast. Hotel owners, fishermen and restaurateurs are keeping anxious watch as an oil slick spreads from a wrecked drilling rig site like a giant filthy ink blot. Forecasters say it could wash ashore within days near delicate wetlands, oyster beds and pristine white beaches.
Crews have not been able to stop thousands of barrels of oil from spewing out of the sea floor since an April 20 explosion destroyed the Deepwater Horizon, which was drilling 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. Eleven workers are missing and presumed dead, and the cause of the explosion has not been determined.
Louis Skrmetta, 54, runs a company called Ship Island Excursions that takes tourists to the Gulf Islands National Seashore, where white-sand beaches and green water create an idyllic landscape.
"This is the worst possible thing that could happen to the Mississippi Gulf Coast," he said. "It will wipe out the oyster industry. Shrimping wouldn't recover for years. It would kill family tourism. That's our livelihood."
As crews struggled to contain the oil slick, Coast Guard officials said Tuesday they were considering setting fire to the contaminated water to burn off the crude. Pools of oil far offshore would be trapped in special containment booms and set aflame as soon as Wednesday.
"If we don't secure this well, this could be one of the most significant oil spills in U.S. history," Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said.
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