NEW ORLEANS AND ATLANTA — As the first powerful storm of the Atlantic hurricane season tore across the Yucatan Peninsula on Sunday, the massive flotilla striving to contain and clean the Gulf of Mexico oil spill hoped the weather wouldn't force it to get out of the way.
Meteorologists predicted that the tropical storm named Alex was more likely to blow into the eastern coast of Mexico rather than due north to the spill site. But a major storm could require the evacuation of ships taking up some of the oil through a pipe system -- leaving as many as 60,000 barrels a day gushing unabated.
BP spokesman John Curry said officials were "definitely keeping a close eye" on the storm.
"Right now the vast majority of the models show it going to that western portion of the gulf," he said. "There may be a very, very slim chance that it may turn, but we'll get ready to make a decision should we need to."
Bob Smerbeck, a meteorologist at AccuWeather .com, said Sunday that the storm would leave the Yucatan and enter the Bay of Campeche, along southern Mexico. There, by Tuesday, it is likely to strengthen into a hurricane -- potentially "a nasty hurricane" -- by midweek, he added.
Smerbeck said it was unlikely the storm would move as far east as the BP oil leak, which began April 20 about 50 miles off Louisiana. But he said it could head toward Texas, linger offshore and kick up big swells that could dismantle containment booms and push oil onto land.
"The best-case scenario for the oil cleanup is that this thing heads right into the Mexican coast without waiting," he said. "The worst case is if it goes north" -- toward Texas -- "and stalls."
The ships collecting the oil need about five days' notice to evacuate. Curry said BP still had time to move them to safety if need be.
On Sunday, Jackson County, Miss., became the latest swath of coast to be hit with oil. Donald Langham, the county emergency management director, said cleanup crews were attacking "tar balls and some small patches of the emulsified oil looking like chocolate" that appeared in areas east of Ocean Springs, Miss.
And in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Corpus Christi, Texas, 72 rehabilitated brown pelicans were released. Officials said they needed to free as many adult pelicans as possible before the storm to make room for more birds. The storm could push oil into more nesting areas.
Governors in the gulf had declared it a day of prayer, but a number of preachers said they didn't need a proclamation to turn to a higher power. At First Baptist Church of Chalmette, in Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish, prayers for the victims of the spill have been issued for weeks, student pastor Marvin Robinson said.
At Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in New Orleans East, parishioners worshiped and sought advice with a free legal clinic organized by attorneys from California and five other states. Thoa-Thi Ta, 56, drove 21/2 hours from Opelousas, La., to ask about her BP claims.
Earlier, she and her husband had consulted a Houston-based Vietnamese lawyer who promised to help them file a claim.
On Sunday, a volunteer lawyer from Oakland explained what they had signed: a retainer granting the Houston lawyer 40% of anything they get from BP.
Ta was shocked. "Of course I did not understand. But because she's Vietnamese, we trust each other," Ta said in Vietnamese as a lawyer translated.
The Rev. Vien The Nguyen preached about Jesus rebuking his disciples for wanting revenge. His message was not about revenge; it was about compensation.
They do not need to pray about it, he said. They need BP to pay.
"Somebody who do wrong, they have to pay for it," he said. "It's justice. Because it affects everybody's livelihood."
Times photographer Carolyn Cole in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas contributed to this report.