GRAND ISLE, La. — The crashing waves and gusting winds churned up by Tropical Storm Alex put the Gulf oil spill largely in Mother Nature's hands Tuesday. Regardless of whether the storm makes things worse or better, it has turned many people fighting the spill into spectators.
Oil-scooping 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.
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Alex is projected to stay far from the spill zone and is not expected to affect recovery efforts at the site of the blown offshore well that continues to spew crude, but the storm's outer edges were causing problems. Waves were as high as 12 feet in parts of the Gulf, according to the National Weather Service.
In at least one area of coastal Louisiana, the waves were tossing oil-soaking boom around and forcing crews to take precious time putting it back in place. However, oily water was not yet crashing over it.
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.
French said workers were using the time off the water to replenish supplies and perform maintenance work.
"We're ready to go as soon as conditions allow us to get those people back out and fighting this oil spill," French said.
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 by the spill. The brackish body of water, connected to the Gulf by narrow passes, is a recreational haven for the metropolitan New Orleans area.
Authorities worried that underwater currents and an easterly wind might drive a 250-square-mile oil slick north of the Chandeleur Islands toward the lake.
"We're very concerned because of the weather," said Suzanne Parsons, spokeswoman for St. Tammany Parish, which is on the north side of the lake. "That means they can't get out and start working it. This may be the first test of our outer lines of defense."
Meanwhile, Jefferson Parish Council member Chris Roberts said the oil was entering passes Tuesday at Barataria Bay, home to diverse wildlife. A day earlier, barges that had been placed in the bay to block the oil were removed because of rough seas.
"The barges are removed and the boom is being displaced in many areas," Roberts said in an e-mail. "As weather conditions permit we are making progress with repositioning the boom."
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."
Forecasters expect Alex to grow to hurricane strength later Tuesday over the southwestern Gulf, on track for the Texas-Mexico border region and away from the oil spill area off Louisiana. But it will blow waves and stormy winds all the way to the open Gulf, where BP is working to cap and contain the oil, and to the coastal waters tinged with crude.
So far, between 137.6 million and 70.8 million gallons of oil have spewed into the Gulf of Mexico from the broken BP well, according to government and BP estimates. The higher estimate is enough oil to fill half of New York's Empire State Building with oil.
A hurricane warning was posted for the Texas coast from Baffin Bay, 100 miles (160 kilometers) south to the mouth of the Rio Grande river; and for an additional 225 miles (360 kilometers) south to La Cruz, Mexico. Except for the border area itself, both regions are lightly populated.
Workers along the South Texas coast were clearing drainage ditches, filling sandbags, positioning heavy equipment and water pumps, and preparing shelters. Some cities handed out sandbags to residents and urged people to make preparations.
Forecasters said rain from Alex would keep falling on southern Mexico and Guatemala into Tuesday, raising the possibility of life-threatening floods and mudslides.
In Louisiana, the Coast Guard had to evacuate workers and equipment from coastal areas in Terrebonne Parish because of tidal surges that could cause flooding, French said.
Still in the water are vessels being used to capture or burn oil and gas leaking from the well and to drill relief wells that officials say are the best hope for stopping the leak for good.
All the uncertainty over what Alex and other storms could do to BP's containment effort gave new urgency to the company's efforts to make its operations at the well as hurricane-resistant as possible.
The company said it hopes to install a new oil-capturing system by next week that would allow BP to disconnect the equipment faster if a hurricane threatens and hook it back up quickly after the storm passes. Right now, BP would need five days to pull out if there is a hurricane. The new system being developed, which uses a flexible hose, would cut that to two days.
The containment system now in place is capturing nearly 1 million gallons per day from the well, which is spewing as much as 2.5 million gallons a day, according to the government's worst-case estimate.
Vice President Joe Biden visited Gulf Coast officials and residents Tuesday. In New Orleans, he said federal and state officials would use a uniform safety standard for seafood coming out of the Gulf. The goal is to quickly reopen closed fishing areas.
Biden said he knows that it's "going to be a lean summer and a lean fall" for the region's fishermen.
"A job is a lot more than about a paycheck," he said. "It's about dignity. It's about respect. ... In your case, it's a way of life."
Associated Press writers Jay Reeves in Gulf Shores, Ala., and Kevin McGill and Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans contributed to this report.