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.
Watch 'World News' for more on this story tonight on ABC.
"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."
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.