A tropical storm is forcing offshore oil rigs to abandon work on a damaged well and move their vessels until the storm passes. In Miami, Tropical Storm Bonnie is expected to pass over the well site in the Gulf of Mexico sometime over the weekend.
U.S. officials ordered vessels to move away from the path of the storm to ensure the safety of the crews and equipment being used to cap the damaged well.
Late Thursday, crews on two offshore platforms began the hours-long process of retracting drill equipment to prepare to evade the storm.
Forecasters with the National Hurricane Center said Tropical Storm Bonnie was moving west across southern Florida, and carrying winds as high as 65 kilometers per hour.
Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is overseeing the response to the damaged well, says the storm may hit the work site Saturday or Sunday. He said officials are monitoring the path of the storm to determine where it is safe to relocate dozens of ships involved in the operation.
"It will be a determination by the folks operating the vessels where to put them to minimize the potential risk to the vessels. And of course we would like to get back on scene and restart activities as soon as we can," said Allen.
Admiral Allen said the storm will force crews to leave the damaged well unattended for 48 hours. It is unclear what impact the work stoppage will have on efforts to seal the well permanently. BP oil officials had hoped to finish a drilling relief well by late July, which will be used to fill the damaged well with cement.
Officials also are studying what impact the storm will have on oil clean-up efforts in open waters and on the U.S. shoreline. Admiral Allen said there may be positive and negative outcomes of the storm.
"Wind and wave activity can actually help in the emulsification of the oil and distribution of the oil. On the other hand, you have the chance to have a storm surge drive that [oil] up into beach and marsh where it would not have been driven otherwise," Allen said.
Officials on the Louisiana coastline also are preparing for a possible storm surge from Tropical Storm Bonnie. Crews in low-lying areas were relocating oil-cleanup equipment and small vessels to escape possible flood damage from the storm.