A tropical depression now slowly moving in the western Caribbean has sparked widespread fears along the Gulf Coast about the effect it could have on the oil spill that already has devastated the region.
If a tropical storm moves toward the oil-ravaged shore, all of the recovery and containment efforts would have to be suspended. Oil-skimming boats would be called back to port, and the containment dome that's now capturing much of the escaping oil would have to be removed as workers are evacuated.
The suspension could last for two weeks.
The oil slick likely would have little effect on a potential storm, but the high winds could churn up waters and wreak havoc on sensitive marshlands and beaches by driving more oil further ashore.
"It would also generate lots of relatively large waves, which will make booms less effective even far away from the storm," Mark Bourassa, a professor at Florida State University, wrote in an email to ABC News. "It will also spread the oil over a much larger area."
If the tropical depression currently near Honduras strengthens to tropical storm status, it would be the first such system in what forecasters believe will be an active 2010 hurricane season. Forecast models show the tropical depression strengthening through the weekend.
The system, which would be called Alex if it reaches tropical storm levels, could travel anywhere from the Texas/Mexico border to the Florida panhandle and the oil spill.
"Obviously, it's going to be very negative," said Adm. Thad Allen, the head of the government's response, on the prospect of a storm.
If the containment dome has to be removed, an extra 1.5 to 2.5 million barrels of oil would shoot into the waters of the Gulf, compounding the scale of the disaster and delaying the drilling of the relief wells.
About 4,500 boats would have to be pulled out of action.
A decision to evacuate containment operations would need to be made three to seven days ahead of a major storm.
The Coast Guard is concerned enough about the tropical depression that today it sent a hurricane hunter to Honduras to measure the storm.
If a storm does move toward the spill, it would be the last thing the already-battered region needs, as was clear today in a meeting of idled workers today in Larose, La.
The workers were there to hear about a new, supposedly streamlined claims process. BP's new front man for the claims process, Louisiana-born Darryl Willis, was in the hot seat, answering questions.
"How are we supposed to pay out bills, feed our families, get work?" asked one woman.
"If you expect more money, you should come and ask for more money," Willis said.
Willis is the centerpiece of a new ad campaign from BP, but it hasn't been well-received by all along the Gulf Coast. This morning on "Good Morning America," the mayor of Orange Beach, Ala., Tony Kennon, accused Willis of fronting an empty PR gesture.
"I've been in a meeting with Mr. Willis where he made promises and didn't follow through," said Kennon. "The ads are the perfect example of how to lie with statistics."
Willis said that he had reached out to the mayor and promised that the claims system is getting better.
"We will reach out to him and find out what it is he needs," said Willis.