Area being evacuated ahead of tropical storm
ON THE GULF OF MEXICO – Ships relaying the sights and sounds from BP’s broken oil well stood fast Friday as the leftovers of Tropical Storm Bonnie blew straight for the spill site, threatening to force a full evacuation that would leave engineers clueless about whether a makeshift cap on the gusher was holding.
Vessels connected to deep-sea robots equipped with cameras and seismic devices would be among the last to flee and would ride out the rough weather if possible, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said.
“If conditions allow, they will remain through the passage of the storm,” Allen said in New Orleans.
Bonnie made landfall south of Miami early Friday as a feeble tropical storm with top sustained winds of 40 mph. It broke apart as it crossed Florida and was a tropical depression as it moved into the Gulf, but forecasters expected it to strengthen slightly and roll over the spill site around midday today.
Some of the dozens of vessels working at the well site were leaving Friday evening. By daybreak, all but a handful, including those providing video images, were expected to remain. Allen said individual captains would decide when to leave based on weather conditions.
The ships holding the robots would be among the first to return if forecasts force them to leave, but they could be gone for up to two days, said Allen, the federal government’s spill chief.
The mechanical plug that has mostly contained the oil for eight days will be left closed, Allen said. But if the robots are reeled in, the only way officials will know whether the cap has failed will be if oil pooling on the surface appears in satellite and aerial views.
Allen expressed increasing confidence in the experimental cap despite a few leaks that initially worried government experts. Scientists say even a severe storm shouldn’t affect the plug, nearly a mile beneath the ocean surface 40 miles from the Louisiana coast.
Crews of other vessels, including one boring the tunnel meant to kill the flow of crude for good, spent Friday hauling in their gear and getting out of the storm’s way.
“Preservation of life and preservation of equipment are our highest priorities,” said Allen, a veteran of the Coast Guard’s rescue mission after Hurricane Katrina.
The foul weather has stalled progress toward killing the well and could delay until mid-August the sealing of the nearly two-mile underground shaft using mud and cement, Allen and BP say. BP had hoped to finish drilling a relief tunnel Friday but had to plug it Wednesday to prepare for the storm.