With Tropical Storm Alex expected to reach hurricane strength today, BP and the Coast Guard ordered oil-scooping ships back to shore as the storm churned up rough seas and powerful winds across the Gulf of Mexico.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Dave French said all efforts had been halted for now off the Louisiana coast, as well as the coasts of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.
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"We're ready to go as soon as conditions allow us to get those people back out and fighting this oil spill," French told The Associated Press.
Coast Guard officials said on this 71st day of the spill disaster that controlled burns of oil, dispersant spraying and booming operations have also all been put on hold.
"Everyone is in because of weather, whether it's thunderstorms or [high] seas," said Wayne Herbert, one of BP's skimming operations managers. Thousands of boats involved in the effort have been sent back to port.
The loss of skimming work combined with 25 mph gusts driving water into the coast has left beaches in the region especially vulnerable. Alabama's 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.
Along the Louisiana shore, boom laid to protect sensitive marshes has been ripped from its anchors by the surf and rendered useless.
The Louisiana National Guard's operation to fill in the gaps between barrier islands with sandbags has also been overwhelmed by the higher waters. The Guard has dropped 13,000 sandbags, but today waves easily crested their hard-fought barrier.
"Well, we'll just have to build it bigger," said Lt. James Gabler of the Army National Guard. "We have a couple points that are holding, but, you know, a couple don't count. Hopefully by the next time it comes around, we have it a little higher."
Storm Disrupts Plan at Site of Leak
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.
Waves of 10 to 12 feet would prevent BP from connecting a third rig to an underwater containment system, a process that needs at least three days of good weather, officials said. The new rig is expected to nearly double -- to between 40,000 and 50,000 barrels a day -- the amount of oil siphoned from the leak.
The storm is not expected to affect BP's containment efforts at the site of the spill, where a containment dome is siphoning off some 28,000 barrels of the estimated 25,000 to 60,000 barrels that are leaking daily. Drilling of the two relief wells that offer a final solution to the leak are also still going according to plan for completion in August.
An evacuation of the personnel working on relief wells site would mean a 14-day delay to take down the equipment, move it to a safe place, and then reestablish the drilling.
While forecasters said the storm's likely path would take it away from the site of the huge spill off Louisiana's coast, they added that it might push oil farther inland and further disrupt cleanup efforts. Alex was centered about 320 miles southeast of Brownsville, Texas, on Tuesday afternoon.
Alex had maximum sustained winds near 70 mph early today, and the National Hurricane Center in Miami predicted the storm would grow into a hurricane sometime during the day as it headed toward the U.S.-Mexico border at the mouth of the Rio Grande. Landfall seemed likely Wednesday night.
Texas Preps for Alex's Impact
In South Texas, residents are repeating a summertime routine they know far too well, boarding up, stocking up, and lining up for sandbags distributed by the city. Hundreds waited hours to get the bags, which will serve as their first line of defense against the heavy rains that are expected to be Alex's biggest threat.
"They could see anywhere from eight to ten inches of rain in the southern part of the state," said Tim Heller, the chief meteorologist for KTRK-TV in Houston.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has already declared 19 of his state's counties disaster areas, and he has activated 2,500 National Guard troops.
"Do what we can today and leave the rest to Mother Nature," said one South Padre Island resident who was boarding up his home today.
But nature has not been kind to Texas in the past. Less than two years ago, Hurricane Dolly blew ashore as a Category 1, a relatively small storm. Still, Dolly stalled and flooded the Rio Grande Valley, causing more than $1 billion in damages, and Alex is a far larger storm.
"We don't need another one. People are just recovering on the island from the last one," said another South Padre resident today.
Hope That Storm Could Also Break Down Oil Slick
Though Alex was creating problems across the Gulf Coast today, there was some hope that the rough weather also might give nature a hand in breaking down crude from the massive oil spill.
Waves churned up by the storm could help break up the patches of oil scattered across the sea, and the higher-than-normal winds that radiate far from the storm could help the crude evaporate faster.
"The oil isn't in one solid sheet. It's all broken up into patches anyway. It will actually work to break those patches down," said Piers Chapman, chairman of the oceanography department at Texas A&M University.
In other developments, BP said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that the catastrophe has cost it $2.65 billion so far. The oil giant has also said it would set up a $20 billion fund to compensate people and businesses for their losses.
BP has lost more than $100 billion in market value since the deep-water drilling platform it was operating blew up April 20, killing 11 workers.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.