A tropical storm slamming into parts of Mexico isn't taking aim at the massive Gulf oil spill — for now — though any system can quickly change course and send cleanup efforts grinding to a halt.
The logistics of containing the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico are mind-boggling even in ideal conditions. Things become even more complicated with the approach of a tropical storm like Alex, which is pelting Belize, northern Guatemala and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula with heavy rain.
Any system with winds over 46 mph could force BP PLC to abandon efforts to contain the flow for up to two weeks and delay the drilling of two relief wells that are the best hope of stopping it, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said Saturday, shortly after Alex became the first tropical storm of the Atlantic hurricane season.
Forecasters say Alex will cross over the Yucatan Peninsula back into the Gulf, where the warm waters could fuel it up to hurricane strength. It's projected to hit Mexico again south of Texas and miss the spill, but officials are watching closely.
"We all know the weather is unpredictable and we could have a sudden, last-minute change," Allen said.
Emergency plans call for moving workers and equipment five days before gale-force winds are forecast to arrive at the half-square mile containment operation surrounding the blown-out well. Oil has been gushing since the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded 50 miles off Louisiana's coast April 20, killing 11 workers.
Nearly 39,000 people and more than 6,000 boats are working there, in other parts of the Gulf and on land to skim and corral the oil, protect hundreds of miles of coastline and clean fouled beaches. All of those efforts would have to be suspended if a storm threatened.
At the well, the two systems that have been capturing anywhere from 840,000 to 1.2 million gallons of oil a day would be unhooked, leaving oil to gush freely into the Gulf again. No one knows exactly how much is flowing, but worst-case estimates indicate it could be as much as 2.5 million gallons a day.
Work would also stop on the two relief wells being drilled to take the pressure off the blown-out well, considered the only permanent solution. The first is on target for completion by mid-August, but there could be a significant delay if people and ships come ashore to ride out a storm.
Despite the setback a suspension would represent, "the safety of life is number one priority," Allen said.
Out in the Gulf, there is also concern about the thousands of feet of protective boom ringing numerous islands and beachfronts. Winds and waves could hurl the material, much of it soaked with oil, deep into marshes and woodlands.
"What boom they don't pick up — and there's miles and miles of it, so there's no way they can pick it all up — will end up back in the marsh," said Ivor van Heerden, former deputy director of Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center.
Once a storm's expected direction is determined, barges and crews plan to remove as much boom in its path as possible, said Sam Phillips, solid waste permits administrator with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. The boom would be stored on barges so it could be put back in place quickly.
"Obviously, it wouldn't withstand a hurricane," Phillips said.
Workers probably would have enough time to retrieve most of the exposed boom, he said.
"You can move a lot of boom in 48 hours, if that were your sole endeavor," he said. "Can they get all of it? Probably not."
The spill — and the prospect of a hurricane whipping oily water into bayous and coastal communities — is also complicating the already complex hurricane planning that takes place each summer.
After all, this is a region that's no stranger to big storms. In 2005, the devastating Hurricane Katrina was followed immediately by Hurricane Rita. Three years later, hurricanes Gustav and Ike hit back-to-back.
BP, the Coast Guard and the state of Lousiana have already been talking about how to coordinate evacuations so workers and equipment involved in the oil spill response don't clog highway escape routes.
Officials in coastal St. Bernard Parish gave local agencies a deadline for outlining evacuation plans, said parish spokeswoman Jennifer Belsom. She acknowledged uncertainties posed by the spill could flummox even the best laid plans.
"There are all kinds of what ifs," she said.
Thousands of families that lost jobs because of the spill may have fewer resources for a storm evacuation, said Mark Cooper, director of the Louisiana governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Pete Gerica says fishermen like him who typically ride out storms in their boats also might have second thoughts this year because of the spill. Oily water carried by the storm surge could be difficult to clean.
"How would you clean it up?" he said. "You will have to clean up mud and oil. Can you clean that out of the walls? Who knows."
It's also unclear what a storm would do to oil floating in the Gulf.
Some fear high winds and large waves could push it deeper into estuaries and wetlands. A storm surge of several feet could bring it inland, creating a mess. But a storm also could help disperse and break up some of the oil.
No matter what happens with Tropical Storm Alex, it's likely just the beginning. Forecasters are predicting a busy hurricane season with powerful storms.
Jeff Masters, director of meteorology for forecasting service Weather Underground, said spill responders may need to rethink their five-day window for suspending containment efforts because storms often change more quickly than that.
If they don't develop a more nuanced plan, he said, "it means they are going to be having lots of false alarms where they are unnecessarily taking down their operation or they are going to be putting lives at risk, one or the other."
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