Published: Jun 29, 2010 7:31 PM EDT
Updated: Jun 29, 2010 4:31 PM EDT

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - BP and the Coast Guard sent oil-scooping
skimming ships in the Gulf of Mexico back to shore Tuesday because
nasty weather from Tropical Storm Alex churned up rough seas and
powerful winds.
      U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Dave French said all efforts had been
halted for now off the Louisiana coast. Efforts also had been
halted off the coasts of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.
      French said workers were using the time off the water to
replenish supplies and perform maintenance work on equipment.
      "We're ready to go as soon as conditions allow us to get those
people back out and fighting this oil spill," French said.
      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.
      Tropical Storm Alex was projected to stay well away from the
spill zone before possibly making landfall as a hurricane as early
as Wednesday just south of the U.S.-Mexico border. But its outer
edges were causing problems out in the Gulf.
      Wayne Hebert, who helps manage skimming operations for BP, 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.
      Waves were as high as 12 feet Tuesday in some parts of the Gulf.
      The surging waves and nasty weather make skimming work unsafe
and ineffective, and also can mangle oil-soaking boom.
      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.
      The only vessels left in the water are being used to capture or
burn oil and gas leaking from the well and to drill two relief
wells that officials say are the best hope for stopping the leak
for good.
      Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the federal government's point man
for the spill response, said this round of rough weather wasn't
expected to affect the drilling operation. Nor is it expected to
halt the tanker sucking up large quantities of oil through the cap
on the well, or a second vessel that is burning off hundreds of
thousands of gallons at the surface.
      Ten boats that had been removing oil from the coast of Alabama
sought shelter in the protected waters of Mobile Bay or Perdido
Bay, and a flotilla of vessels that had been trying to prevent oil
from entering the pass into Perdido Bay were gone. In Mississippi,
four skimmers were riding out the storm beside Petit Bois Island,
Hebert said.
      Cleanup crews fought the winds and showers with empty bags
blowing across the sand occasionally and the tops of canvas
shelters flapping in the breeze.
      Hebert said it was impossible to say when the work might resume.
      "I don't control the weather," he said.
      Pulling boats and crews off the water could cost precious time,
said Nancy Kinner, co-director of the Coastal Response Research
Center at the University of New Hampshire. Equipment has to be
stripped down, packed and protected from the force of the storm,
and then has to be reassembled and deployed again, she said.
      Despite the setbacks, the rough weather could give nature a hand
in breaking down crude from the spill that's spilled as much as
137.6 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.
      High waves could help break up the patches of oil scattered
across the sea. The higher-than-normal winds that radiate far from
the storm also could help the crude evaporate faster.
      As Alex steamed closer to land, 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 emergency shelters. Some cities also 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.
      All of the uncertainty of 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.
      Meanwhile Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden was visiting
officials and residents on the Gulf Coast.