BP Oil Spill: Ships Head to Shore as Bonnie Barrels Toward Spill Site

Concern grows that storm could push oil ashore in a major setback to cleanup.

July 23, 2010, 4:22 PM

BURAS, La. July 23, 2010— -- With Bonnie barreling into the Gulf of Mexico, BP's cap on the broken well soon could be left unattended because an armada of ships is fleeing the spill site for safer waters ahead of the storm.

Dozens of ships at the former Deepwater Horizon site have pulled up anchor and are chugging toward shore, and hundreds of skimmer boats already have been docked.

Watch "World News" for the latest on the oil spill and on Bonnie.

Bonnie, downgraded from a tropical storm to a tropical depression today, made landfall and drenched southern Florida. The storm is expected to grow in strength as it moves across the Gulf of Mexico, and it's expected to hit the Louisiana coast as a tropical storm Saturday night. Officials already have closed flood gates around New Orleans.

The first ship to leave the spill effort was the drill ship cutting out a relief well that promises to plug the leak for good. The drilling effort was agonizingly close -- just a few days from reaching its target, but now that effort will be on hold. The withdrawal will delay the kill by a week or more.

The last to leave will be the barges that control the deep-sea robots monitoring the containment cap. If they have to go, engineers will be blind to the crippled well for as long as 48 hours. If the cap fails, the only way they would know would be through satellite or aerial imagery of oil gushing to the surface.

"While we may have to leave the site -- we don't know we will -- we are prepared to optimize our surveillance platforms as we do that," national incident commander Thad Allen said today. "The intention right now is to put the vessels in a safe place so they can return as quickly as possible to resume their operations."

Winds Expected to Push Oil Ashore

Winds of up to 50 miles an hour may help disperse some of the oil, but they're also likely to sling plenty of the offshore oil onto the land, complicating cleanup efforts.

"In Louisiana, you've got some very low-lying marshlands, so the storm surge will penetrate several miles inland in those low-lying areas," said Jeff Masters, the director of meteorology for Weather Underground.

There's plenty of oil left in the waters. The giant plumes of oil in the Gulf, thousands of feet down and miles long, have doubled in concentration over the past two months, federal researchers said today, confirming for the first time that the plume oil is from BP's broken well.

BP initially denied that the existence of the plumes.

At BP's command center in Venice, La., they're boarding up windows, even as workers remain inside with all eyes on Bonnie. Still, most of the army of 40,000 response workers is beginning to disband. Many are packing their bags and boarding shuttles to head north.

It's a depressing site for those who have spent the past three months cleaning up the spill.

"We'll be here a lot longer than we should have been," said one worker today. "They said six months when we got here. We're already here two, and it doesn't look like we'll be going home anytime soon."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Click here to return to the 'World News' page.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events