Reporting from Pensacola Beach, Fla., and Los — The first tropical storm of the Atlantic hurricane season headed toward the Yucatan Peninsula on Saturday night and was expected to turn northwest toward the southern coast of Texas without roiling the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
But Tropical Storm Alex was still giving the jitters to officials in charge of cleaning up the spill and protecting beaches and wildlife-rich marshland from Louisiana to Florida.
"We all know the weather is unpredictable, and we could have a sudden last-minute change," said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration's point man for the spill.
On Saturday, Alex was "just shy of hurricane strength," said Brian LaMarre, a National Weather Service meteorologist, and it could grow to a Category 1 hurricane by Tuesday afternoon. But the good news, he added, was that "winds associated with Alex are going to be so far south, it will have minimal impact on the [oil] recovery efforts."
Nonetheless, forecasters are predicting an active hurricane season with strong storms. Hurricanes feed on warm water, and the sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic are higher than usual this year. The hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.
The well, which blew out a mile below sea level off Louisiana on April 20, has been gushing as many as 60,000 barrels of oil a day, according to government figures — no one is sure of the exact amount. Oil giant and well owner BP has been capturing as many as 25,000 barrels a day into tankers through a pipe system. Relief wells are being drilled to stop the spill, which could happen by mid-August.
But efforts to kill the spewing well would be suspended if storms with winds above 46 mph appear headed toward the region. It would take five days for ships to disengage from the capture system and seek a safe harbor, and a week or so to hook it up again, Allen said.
Federal, state and local officials, working with BP, are gearing up for extensive evacuations if needed. More than 38,600 workers and more than 6,000 vessels are involved in the cleanup and efforts to kill the well.
Despite a massive deployment of booms, skimming vessels and chemical dispersants, oil has washed up on coastal areas from the mouth of the Mississippi River to the Florida Panhandle.
At a Pensacola boatyard Saturday, captains and deckhands heading out for cleanup duty fretted about the consequences of a dramatic increase in gushing oil should containment vessels be sidelined during the storm season.
"It could be disastrous," said Capt. Rich Adams, 54. Last week, the scuba diving instructor said he saw rust-colored ribbons of oil offshore that were up to 30 yards long.
"We're seeing marine life killed, and we have no idea what it's doing to our reefs," he said.
Environmental groups Saturday sought to channel public frustration with the spill with hundreds of protests worldwide dubbed Hands Across the Sand. The goal, organizers said, was to "form symbolic barriers against spilling oil."
In Santa Monica, near the pier, about 400 protesters gathered for speeches, holding hand-lettered signs reading, "No more oil crimes" and "Clean energy now." The mood was feel-good: They held hands in a circle and then moved into a long line facing the ocean.
In Pensacola Beach, on the Florida Panhandle, the hand-holders gathered amid the rakes and equipment of BP crews that have been cleaning up tar balls from the spill in recent days. About 450 people stood hand in hand in the sweltering afternoon.
BP "really messed up our beautiful beaches," said Ricky Heinrich, 52, a manufacturing representative. "We're all gathering here … as a demonstration against BP and against anything like this ever happening again."
Gov. Charlie Crist waded barefoot in the water and knelt on the sand to trace the outline of the state with a water bottle, explaining that the storm would bypass Florida. "But we don't know for sure — so pray!" he told the crowd.
The protests were sponsored by more than a dozen activist groups, including Audubon, MoveOn.org, Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation. They said protests were taking place in all 50 states and in more than 20 countries.