NEW ORLEANS — BP and the Coast Guard sent oil-scooping skimming ships in the Gulf of Mexico back to shore Tuesday because nasty weather from Tropical Storm Alex churned up rough seas and powerful winds.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Dave French said all efforts had been halted for now off the Louisiana coast. Efforts also had been halted off the coasts of Florida, Alabama and Louisiana.
French said workers were using the time off the water to replenish supplies and perform maintenance work on equipment.
“We’re ready to go as soon as conditions allow us to get those people back out and fighting this oil spill,” French said.
The loss of skimming work combined with 25 mph gusts driving water into the coast has left beaches especially vulnerable. In Alabama, the normally white beaches were streaked with long lines of oil, and tar balls collected on the sand. One swath of beach 40 feet wide was stained brown and mottled with globs of oil matted together.
Tropical Storm Alex was projected to stay well away from the spill zone before possibly making landfall as a hurricane as early as Wednesday just south of the U.S.-Mexico border. But its outer edges were causing problems out in the Gulf.
Wayne Hebert, who helps manage skimming operations for BP, said all nearshore skimmers were idled off the coasts of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.
“Everyone is in because of weather, whether it’s thunderstorms or (high) seas,” Hebert said.
Waves were as high as 12 feet Tuesday in some parts of the Gulf.
The surging waves and nasty weather make skimming work unsafe and ineffective, and also can mangle oil-soaking boom.
The Coast Guard had to evacuate workers and equipment from coastal areas in Terrebonne Parish because of tidal surges that could cause flooding, French said.
The only vessels left in the water are being used to capture or burn oil and gas leaking from the well and to drill two relief wells that officials say are the best hope for stopping the leak for good.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the federal government’s point man for the spill response, said this round of rough weather wasn’t expected to affect the drilling operation. Nor is it expected to halt the tanker sucking up large quantities of oil through the cap on the well, or a second vessel that is burning off hundreds of thousands of gallons at the surface.
Ten boats that had been removing oil from the coast of Alabama sought shelter in the protected waters of Mobile Bay or Perdido Bay, and a flotilla of vessels that had been trying to prevent oil from entering the pass into Perdido Bay were gone. In Mississippi, four skimmers were riding out the storm beside Petit Bois Island, Hebert said.
Cleanup crews fought the winds and showers with empty bags blowing across the sand occasionally and the tops of canvas shelters flapping in the breeze.
Hebert said it was impossible to say when the work might resume.
“I don’t control the weather,” he said.
Pulling boats and crews off the water could cost precious time, said Nancy Kinner, co-director of the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. Equipment has to be stripped down, packed and protected from the force of the storm, and then has to be reassembled and deployed again, she said.
Despite the setbacks, the rough weather could give nature a hand in breaking down crude from the spill that’s spilled as much as 137.6 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.
High waves could help break up the patches of oil scattered across the sea. The higher-than-normal winds that radiate far from the storm also could help the crude evaporate faster.
As Alex steamed closer to land, a hurricane warning was posted for the Texas coast from Baffin Bay, 100 miles (160 kilometers) south to the mouth of the Rio Grande river; and for an additional 225 miles (360 kilometers) south to La Cruz, Mexico. Except for the border area itself, both regions are lightly populated.
Workers along the South Texas coast were clearing drainage ditches, filling sandbags, positioning heavy equipment and water pumps, and preparing emergency shelters. Some cities also handed out sandbags to residents and urged people to make preparations.
Forecasters said rain from Alex would keep falling on southern Mexico and Guatemala into Tuesday, raising the possibility of life-threatening floods and mudslides.
All of the uncertainty of what Alex and other storms could do to BP’s containment effort gave new urgency to the company’s efforts to make its operations at the well as hurricane-resistant as possible.
The company said it hopes to install a new oil-capturing system by next week that would allow BP to disconnect the equipment faster if a hurricane threatens and hook it back up quickly after the storm passes. Right now, BP would need five days to pull out if there is a hurricane. The new system being developed, which uses a flexible hose, would cut that to two days.
The containment system now in place is capturing nearly 1 million gallons per day from the well, which is spewing as much as 2.5 million gallons a day, according to the government’s worst-case estimate.
Meanwhile Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden was visiting officials and residents on the Gulf Coast.
Reeves reported from Gulf Shores, Ala. Associated Press writers Harry R. Weber in Houston, Brian Skoloff in Pensacola, Fla., Michael Kunzelman and John Flesher in New Orleans contributed to this report.
Jay Reeves and Tom Breen/The Associated Press