Tropical storm Alex, the first major storm of the Atlantic season, tore past Central American coasts at wind speeds reaching 45 miles an hours (75 kilometres), leaving at least 10 people dead in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador.
AFP - The first major storm of the Atlantic season was entering the Gulf of Mexico Monday, seeming set to avoid the BP oil spill but leaving residents jittery after causing 10 deaths.
Tropical Storm Alex was expected to gain strength as it moves into the southwestern Gulf after dumping heavy rains across the Yucatan peninsula, having killed at least 10 people in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador.
On its current path, Alex is projected to make landfall in Mexico later this week, with most of its force avoiding the oil spill area in the northeastern Gulf off the Louisiana coast.
But experts warned that strong swells and winds could reach the slick area and disrupt cleanup efforts, as officials worked to get ships and equipment ready at the main containment site in the Gulf in case of a direct storm hit.
Alex, which already packed sustained winds of 45 miles (75 kilometers) an hour, was also expected to strengthen further. "Alex could become a hurricane within the next 48 hours," the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.
An estimated 80 million to 150 million gallons have poured into the Gulf since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers.
One of the four states with shorelines sullied by the oil, Mississippi, reported "significant" oil washed ashore Sunday, with prevailing winds expected to push more oil toward the shores at least for the next several days.
The Mississippi governor's office said tides of the weathered brown-orange mess have been found on about two miles (three kilometers) of beaches along the southeastern tip of the state and on some of the barrier islands.
"The shoreline had largely escaped the oil, with the exception of some scattered tar balls. This is our first significant intrusion of oil on the shoreline," Governor Haley Barbour's press secretary Dan Turner told AFP.
"We've been spared very much up until this point. We are spared no longer."
The news of more oil in Mississippi amplified fears among Gulf inhabitants that a major storm could potentially wash the toxic crude along more of the coast.
"It looks like we're dodging the bullet right now," local environmentalist Aaron Viles told AFP, but noted that there were "six to 10 more bullets in the chamber," referring to what he said is projected to be a "hyperactive" hurricane season in 2010.
That "sends a chill down the spine of any resident on the Gulf in any year," said Viles, campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network.
US President Barack Obama's pointman on the disaster, US Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, has cautioned that rough weather could set back oil recovery operations for up to two weeks.
Such an impact "would be the first time and there is no playbook," Allen said Saturday, insisting there was "an extraordinary amount of planning" for that scenario.
An event like that would exacerbate the spill that has defiled the Gulf Coast's once pristine shorelines, killed wildlife and put a big dent in the region's multi-billion-dollar fishing industry.
It would also mean the estimated 30,000 to 65,000 barrels of oil gushing daily from a ruptured wellhead down on the seafloor would be billowing crude and gas unchecked for days.
Along with preparations for a full evacuation of the site, to get the ships siphoning the oil quickly back to shore, BP said it has installed the first flexible riser pipe that will remain connected to the ruptured well on the sea floor.
The free standing pipe makes it easier to reconnect with the siphoning ships on the surface upon their return after a hurricane, and will be kept connected to the leaking well when ships leave during a hurricane -- in contrast to the fixed riser pipes that need to be disconnected when ships head for shore.
Allen said vessels recuperating some of the oil and gas would need up to five days to evacuate the site.
The British energy giant said its plans to drill through four kilometers of rock were on track. No permanent solution to the spill is expected before two relief wells are due to be completed in August.
Heavy drilling fluids would then be pumped into the existing well to drown the oil flow, allowing it to be plugged for good with cement.
Vice President Joe Biden heads to the region on Tuesday and is due to visit the New Orleans command center before traveling to the Florida panhandle.
Date created : 2010-06-28