New Orleans, Louisiana (CNN) — Even though Hurricane Alex was more than 600 miles away from the massive BP oil spill Thursday morning, forecasters and officials said the storm could affect cleanup efforts for days.
The storm, which made landfall in northeastern Mexico Wednesday night and was moving inland at a speed of around 10 mph, continued to cause heavy seas across the Gulf of Mexico.
Coast Guard officials will conduct an aerial survey to assess the storm’s impact Thursday, Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft said.
The storm has already disrupted the containment booms meant to limit the amount of oil reaching shore, Zukunft said in a press briefing Wednesday. More than 500 oil skimming ships had to return to shore and efforts to burn oil on the surface and break it down through dispersants were put on hold, he said, along with efforts to position a third ship to collect oil at the spill site.
And residual effects from the storm could prohibit skimming and burning of oil in the gulf at least until Saturday or Sunday, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.
“Until the weather subsides, all we can do is have everything ready to attack and remove this oil once we have weather that’s more conducive,” Zukunft said Wednesday.
Alex — the first hurricane of the Atlantic hurricane season — was producing high seas where the oil is located, Myers said. Winds were 15 to 20 mph at the spill site Wednesday, producing waves 6 to 8 feet high, he said.
That poses a problem for the skimmers, Zukunft said.
“When seas get over 3 feet high, the skimmers become ineffective. They wind up gathering water and not oil,” he said.
One thing that has not been affected — BP’s effort to drill relief wells down to the area where oil is leaking. Weather would have to be very severe to affect that, according to Zukunft, and at this point, BP said it is on track to reach the area in August.
The storm also is having an impact on where the massive oil spill is flowing. Previously, some oil had been reaching Pensacola Beach in Florida, but the storm’s prevailing southeast winds have drawn it more toward the environmentally sensitive Mississippi and Chandeleur sounds, off the coast of Mississippi and Louisiana, Zukunft said.
Myers said that’s because the storm winds are moving counterclockwise in a huge arc. The strong winds are expected to blow for about three days, pushing the oil back to shore in the area where there already have been dramatic pictures of oil-drenched birds.
Meanwhile, authorities also were busy preparing for future storms.
Planners with the Louisiana governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness this week created a hurricane evacuation plan with BP, said the office’s director, Mark Cooper.
The plan, applicable for the entire hurricane season — which ends November 30 — calls for BP’s thousands of workers to leave the Louisiana coast at least 16 hours before officials begin evacuating residents.
“We can’t have BP blocking our roadways with equipment and personnel,” said Cooper.
The plan calls for BP to be back on the scene combating the spill within 72 hours after a hurricane, Cooper said.
Researchers have estimated that between 35,000 barrels (about 1.5 million gallons) and 60,000 barrels (about 2.5 million gallons) of oil are gushing into the gulf every day.