staff and news service reports
updated 6/30/2010 8:11:14 AM ET 2010-06-30T12:11:14

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-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.

Those operations could soon get a boost, as the U.S. accepted offers of help from 12 countries and international organizations. Japan, for instance, was sending two skimmers and boom.

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. 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.

French said workers were using the time off the water to replenish supplies and perform maintenance work.

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 Wednesday night.

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.

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. Boom was being displaced and had to be repositioned, he said in an e-mail.

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."

The storm, however, pushed the oil patch toward Grand Isle and uninhabited Elmer's Island, dumping tar balls as big as apples on the beach.

"The sad thing is that it's been about three weeks since we had any big oil come in here," marine science technician Michael Malone. "With this weather we lost all the progress we made."

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.

Hurricane warnings were posted for parts of the coast along Mexico and Texas. Except for the border area itself, though, most of the warning area is lightly populated.

Still in the Gulf 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.

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.

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.

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 also 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."

Also Tuesday:

  • The State Department said offers of help from 12 countries and international organizations in dealing with the spill have been accepted.
  • The Obama administration said that BP had met its July 1 deadline to pay the federal government for the initial costs of responding to the Gulf oil spill. BP paid two bills totaling about $71 million earlier this month, the administration said. The government had set a Thursday deadline for the largest of the two bills, which charged the company $69 million. The oil company is still reviewing and processing a third bill for $51.4 million. The White House has long said that as the responsible party, BP must pay all costs associated with the response to the spill.
  • Vice President Joe Biden visited New Orleans for a briefing on cleanup efforts. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal welcomed Biden at New Orleans' airport, having earlier said he would press Biden to step up the federal response to the spill. Jindal also said heavy patches of oil were spotted about three miles offshore from Grand Isle on Monday. "We didn't see one vessel out there trying to capture that oil. We need to have a greater sense of urgency," the governor said. "They need to treat this like the war that it is."

Polls have given Obama low marks for his handling of the disaster, although not as low as those given to BP.

As crude oil and dispersants float on the surface of the Gulf, crews are battling to keep filth off beaches and away from wildlife breeding grounds.

Rough weather created by Hurricane Alex would be just the latest blow to the hard-hit region.

Parts of the Louisiana shoreline are under a coastal flood watch through Wednesday evening. High tides could be two to three feet above normal in some locations.

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Skippers and deckhands at the public marina in Pointe-a-la-Hache, Louisiana, said they were worried about what impact the water's already high level will have if Alex pushes foul weather toward them.

"If a storm comes with the tide, then it's going to be an issue," said Robert Whittington, who has worked at the marina for 20 years. "We're just waiting to see what happens."

In Ocean Springs, Mississippi, residents angry about BP's slow spill clean-up took it upon themselves to pick up tar balls making landfall. After waiting hours for cleanup crews, young children and their parents began digging up large patches of the oil with sand toys and shovels.

"That is all we had to use and we were not going to sit around and wait for BP to pick this mess up. It is our home," said area resident Marty Wagoner.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Tracking Hurricane Alex, oil spill cleanup

  1. Transcript of: Tracking Hurricane Alex, oil spill cleanup

    WILLIE GEIST, co-host: But let's begin this morning with Hurricane Alex barreling through the gulf towards southern Texas . We have three reports starting with Al who's keeping a close watch on the storm 's projected path. Al , good morning.

    AL ROKER reporting: Well, good morning, Willie . And the good news is the track of the storm of Alex brings it more into Mexico than to Texas . Right now through -- 235 miles southeast of Brownsville , 80-mile-per-hour winds. It's moving west/northwest at seven miles per hour . Now we do have hurricane warnings up from La Cruz , Mexico , to Baffin Bay . Hurricane tropical storm warnings up to Port O'Connor . And here's the path of the storm right now. Looks like it's going to make landfall sometime late tonight, early tomorrow morning as a Category 2 at 100 miles an hour and work its way in. So we're not worried so much about the winds, but we are worried about the rainfall. We have flash flood watches and flood watches and coastal flood warnings around Galveston , Corpus Christi , Brownsville , all the way to Biloxi , Mississippi . Why? The rain. And we're look -- already looking at heavy rain falling. You can just see the beginning of the eye now of Alex starting to approach the Mexico border, but that rain extends all the way to Florida . Rainfall amounts, we are talking huge amounts of rain generally anywhere from 10 to 15 inches of rain between Brownsville , Corpus Christi , Galveston , New Orleans , on into the western panhandle of Florida . So the flooding is going to be the biggest problem. Also, can't rule out isolated tornadoes all along

    the gulf. Willie: Al , this is very early, as you know, for a storm this size in the season. What does it tell us about the rest of this hurricane season ?

    GEIST: Well, you can't necessary extrapolate out just because it's happened this early. However, about 60 percent of the time when you have a storm this -- a hurricane this early, that means you're going to have a more active than usual hurricane season . But again, just because this has happened doesn't mean that's what's going to happen this year. Willie :

    ROKER: All right, Al . We'll check back in with you in a moment. With more now, here's Meredith .

    GEIST: Willie , thank you. So how are people in South Texas preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Alex ? The Weather Channel 's Stephanie Abrams is on South Padre Island with more of the story. Stephanie , good morning to you.

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: Good morning to you, Meredith . And I want to show you how far the water has already gotten here, covering over half the beach. This is the water mark we've had so far this morning. We are expecting a surge three to five feet. By the way, high tide isn't until 8:44 this morning. The rain's already come. As Al mentioned, we could see close to a foot. Here in South Padre , we could see five times our monthly rainfall over the next 48 hours. It's not only the rain, but the winds, sustained right now around 25 miles an hour . Queen Isabella is a causeway that connects us to the mainland. If the winds gets sustained at 45 miles an hour -- here comes the water already coming up again here -- they are going to close down that causeway, and actually Obama has made a declaration here, an emergency declaration allowing FEMA , Meredith , and the state and local officials to come together. But the Brownsville mayor is saying he's going to hold off on that declaration because the city is cash-strapped.

    STEPHANIE ABRAMS reporting: All right, Stephanie Abrams , thank you very much . It is 7:05, and now with more, here's Willie .

    VIEIRA: Meredith , thanks.

    WILLIE GEIST, co-host: Hurricane Alex is already hampering efforts to clean up some of the oil that's been leaking into the gulf for 72 days now. NBC 's chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson in Venice , Louisiana . Anne , good morning.

    WILLIE GEIST, co-host: Good morning, Willie . From a very hot and humid Venice Harbor , we are on a boat today, but I can tell you that workers on the oil cleanup crews probably won't be getting on boats today. It looks like for a second day Alex will hamper the cleanup efforts here in Louisiana . Winds up to 30 miles per hour and seas up to seven feet high for skimmer boats, and workers back onshore yesterday as they just couldn't get out to where the oil is causing a problem. Now a storm like this is a double-edged sword for the oil cleanup. The good news is, is that the rough seas and the high winds break up the oil. The bad news is, is that the storm can create oil-covered storm surge . So that's the problem onshore. Out at the spill site work continues on the relief wells and on those two containment systems. They're picking up -- they're collecting oil at a rate of about 1,000 barrels a day. The problem is, they hope to get a third containment system online but they need calm seas to do that. So they hope to do that next week. Willie , back to you.

    ANNE THOMPSON reporting: Anne Thompson , losing some precious time there in Louisiana , thanks so much. It's 7:07. Now here's Meredith .


Photos: Month 4

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  1. The Blue Dolphin, left, and the HOS Centerline, the ships supplying the mud for the static kill operation on the Helix Q4000, are seen delivering mud through hoses at the site of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana, on Aug. 3, 2010. In the background is the Development Driller III, which is drilling the primary relief well. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Eddie Forsythe and Don Rorabough dump a box of blue crabs onto a sorting table at B.K. Seafood in Yscloskey, La., on Aug. 3, 2010. The crabs were caught by fisherman Garet Mones. Commercial and recreational fishing has resumed, with some restrictions in areas that were closed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Chuck Cook / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Sea turtle hatchlings that emerged from eggs gathered on the northern Gulf Coast of Florida are released at Playalinda Beach on the Canaveral National Seashore near Titusville, Fla., on Aug. 2, 2010. The sea turtles were born at a Kennedy Space Center incubation site, where thousands of eggs collected from Florida and Alabama beaches along the Gulf of Mexico have been sent. (Craig Rubadoux / Florida Today via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A crab, covered with oil, walks along an oil absorbent boom near roso-cane reeds at the South Pass of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana on Aug. 1, 2010. BP is testing the well to see if it can withstand a "static kill" which would close the well permanently. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A boat motors through a sunset oil sheen off East Grand Terre Island, where the Gulf of Mexico meets Barataria Bay on the La. coast, on the evening of July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Oil approaches a line of barges and boom positioned to protect East Grand Terre Island, partially seen at top right, on July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen near an unprotected island in the Gulf of Mexico near Timbalier Bay, off the coast of Louisiana on Wednesday, July 28. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Greenpeace activists stand outside a BP gas station in London, England, on July 27 after they put up a fence to cut off access. Several dozen BP stations in London were temporarily shut down to protest the Gulf spill. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. James Wilson sells T-shirts to those arriving in Grand Isle, La., for the music festival Island Aid 2010 on July 24. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Activists covered in food coloring made to look like oil protest BP's Gulf oil spill in Mexico City on July 22. The sign at far left reads in Spanish "Petroleum kills animals." (Alexandre Meneghini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. People in Lafayette, La., wear "Keep Drilling" tee shirts at the "Rally for Economic Survival" opposing the federal ban on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, July 21. Supporters at the rally want President Obama to lift the moratorium immediately to protect Louisiana's jobs and economy. (Ann Heisenfelt / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A flock of white ibis lift off from marsh grass on Dry Bread Island in St. Bernard Parish, La., July 21. Crews found about 130 dead birds and 15 live birds affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on July 19 in the eastern part of the parish behind the Chandeleur Islands. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on July 21 in Washington, D.C. The hearing was to examine the claim process for victims of the Gulf Coast oil spill. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An American white pelican has its wings checked during a physical examination at Brookfield Zoo’s Animal Hospital by Michael Adkesson and Michael O’Neill on July 21. The bird, along with four other pelicans, was rescued from the Gulf Coast oil spill and will be placed on permanent exhibit at the zoo. (Jim Schulz / Chicago Zoological Society via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Native people of the Gwich'in Nation form a human banner on the banks of the Porcupine River near Ft. Yukon, Alaska July 21, in regard to the BP oil spill with a message to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development. The images include a Porcupine caribou antler and a threatened Yukon River Salmon. (Camila Roy / Spectral Q via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
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    Above: Slideshow (15) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 4
  2. Image: Economic And Environmental Impact Of Gulf Oil Spill Deepens
    Mario Tama / Getty Images
    Slideshow (64) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 3
  3. Image: Oil Spill In The Gulf
    Digitalglobe / Getty Images Contributor
    Slideshow (81) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 2
  4. Image: Dispersed oil caught in the wake of a transport boat floats on the Gulf of Mexico
    Hans Deryk / Reuters
    Slideshow (53) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 1
  5. Image:
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    Slideshow (10) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Rig explosion


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