GRAND ISLE, La. – The crashing waves and gusting winds churned up by now Hurricane Alex put the Gulf oil spill largely in Mother Nature’s hands Tuesday. Regardless of whether the storm makes things worse or even better, it has turned many people fighting the spill into spectators.
Oil-skimming ships in the Gulf of Mexico steamed to safe refuge because of the rough seas, which likely will last for days. Officials scrambled to reposition boom to protect the coast, and had to remove barges that had been blocking oil from reaching sensitive wetlands.
Alex is projected to stay far from the spill zone and is not expected to affect recovery efforts at the site of the blown-out well off the Louisiana coast. Vessels being used to capture or burn oil and gas leaking from it and those drilling relief wells that officials say are the best hope for stopping the leak for good are still working in the Gulf.
But the storm’s outer edges complicated the cleanup as the oil turned whitecaps red. Waves were as high as 12 feet in parts of the Gulf, according to the National Weather Service.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Dave French said all skimming efforts had been halted for now off the Louisiana coast. Wayne Hebert, who helps manage skimming operations for BP PLC, said all nearshore skimmers were idled off the coasts of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.
“Everyone is in because of weather, whether it’s thunderstorms or (high) seas,” Hebert said.
Alex late Tuesday had maximum sustained winds at 75 mph. The National Hurricane Center said the Category 1 storm is the first June Atlantic hurricane since 1995. It is on track for the Texas-Mexico border region and expected to make landfall tonight.
In Grand Isle, dozens of boats, from skiffs up to huge shrimp boats, were tied up at the docks, rocked by waves even in the sheltered marina.
“It’s really rough out there,” said Coast Guardsman Zac Crawford. “We want the oil cleaned up, but we want people to be safe. We don’t want to lose anyone working on the spill.”
On the beach, cleanup workers struggled with wind that blew sand into their eyes and mouths and humidity that let the sand stick to their skin.
Farther inland, local officials worried the weather could hamper efforts to keep the oil out of Lake Pontchartrain, which so far has not been affected. The brackish body of water, connected to the Gulf by narrow passes, is a recreational haven for metropolitan New Orleans.
The loss of skimming work combined with 25 mph gusts driving water into the coast has left beaches especially vulnerable. In Alabama, the 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.
That nasty weather will likely linger in the Gulf through Thursday, National Weather Service meteorologist Brian LaMarre said.
Scientists have said the rough seas and winds could actually help break apart the oil and make it evaporate faster.
The wave action, combined with dispersants sprayed by the Coast Guard, have helped break a 6-by-30-mile oil patch into smaller patches, Coast Guard Cmdr. Joe Higgens said.
“It’s good news because there is less on the surface,” Higgens said. “It’s surface oil that washes up on the beaches.”