Reporting from Atlanta and Gulfport, Miss. — Lingering high seas from Hurricane Alex continued to thwart gulf oil cleanup efforts Thursday, idling all skimming boats from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle for a third consecutive day.
Alex was a Category 2 hurricane Wednesday night when it slammed into the northeastern coast of Mexico. On Thursday it was downgraded to a tropical storm, and brought heavy rains to the Sierra Madre and parts of Texas, according to meteorologists at AccuWeather.com.
However, the storm continued to cause trouble far to the east, delivering waves as high as 7 feet that have made skimming operations impossible.
"We're just waiting for the weather to get better," Coast Guard Petty Officer Zach Zubricki said at the main oil spill response center in New Orleans.
Coast Guard Cmdr. Charles Diorio, based in Mobile, Ala., said he expected the skimmers to be back on the water by the weekend.
Although Alex, the first major storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, didn't pass over the spill site, located about 50 miles off Louisiana, it demonstrated the kind of disruption that can thwart a response that is largely reliant on a vast flotilla of ships and small boats.
Experts expect the hurricane season, which lasts until Nov. 30, to be particularly active this year. A storm closer to the spill site could force oil giant BP to send its ships to shore, disrupting for as long as two weeks the containment effort that is corralling a fraction of the oil.
At best, those production ships have been taking up about 25,000 barrels of oil a day. The damaged Deepwater Horizon well could be spewing as much as 60,000 barrels a day, according to government experts.
The bad weather Thursday did not stop all work along the coast. In Gulfport, Miss., about a dozen BP-hired workers in white protective suits bagged oily sand on the beach during driving rain. About 2,400 workers based in Gulfport have been clearing beaches this week, a supervisor said.
Dark gray clouds hovered above them Thursday, as the muddy gulf waters churned on one side and wooden rental beach chairs sat empty on the other.
"This is heartbreaking," Wanda Broussard said as she walked the strand with her husband, Mike, who was barefoot. "This is Fourth of July weekend: no people, tar balls on the beach and people cleaning."
The couple from Lafayette, La., had been on vacation in Memphis and stopped on the way home to see the oil. "We walked yesterday and I got some on my feet," Mike Broussard said, "It's kind of hard to get off."
Thus far, oil has hit land as far east as the Florida Panhandle counties of Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton. But officials are preparing for the possibility that the oil could spread much farther.
"Miami and the St. Petersburg area are already manned up and starting to look at their booming strategies, and get their requirements in place so they can get the boom laid if the oil appears to be heading that way," said Coast Guard Cmdr. Joe Boudrow, deputy incident commander for the state.
This week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sent two ships to survey the eastern Gulf of Mexico and Florida Straits, in part to provide an early warning to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and others if the arrival of oil there seems imminent.
In Washington on Thursday, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that Senate Republicans were not opposed to granting subpoena power to a White House commission investigating the oil leak, smoothing over a small but contentious issue between the parties.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) had blocked the legislation Wednesday, prompting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- San Francisco), whose chamber had passed the legislation 420 to 1, to criticize the Senate GOP members Thursday for being too cozy with Big Oil, according to the website Talking Points Memo.
On Thursday, Don Stewart, McConnell's press secretary, said DeMint issued the objection only because some Republicans were worried that they had been given scant time to adequately consider the matter.
"They tried to do this with four or five minutes' warning," Stewart said in a phone interview.
Wesley Denton, a DeMint spokesman, noted that his boss had supported granting subpoena power to the commission from the beginning. DeMint was simply on the floor when the Democrats' request was made, and DeMint issued the objection on behalf of other GOP senators.