Federal officials Friday scrambled to get ready for the possibility that a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico could shut down containment operations at BP's leaking well and wash large quantities of oil ashore.
A low pressure area brewing on the northeast coast of Honduras and Grand Cayman has a 70 percent chance of becoming a tropical storm in the next 48 hours, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Computer models show the storm taking one of two possible routes: moving northwest toward the border of Texas and Louisiana, or northeast across the spill toward the Florida panhandle.
Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration's point man on the spill, said Friday that federal, state and local governments, working with BP, have a "very robust hurricane contingency plan."
Five days before gale-force winds, or 40-knot winds, are forecast, he said, BP would begin to withdraw the tankers and equipment now capturing oil from the leaking well. It would also shut down the rigs that are drilling relief wells that are designed to ultimately cap the leak.
BP tankers are collecting more than 20,000 barrels of oil a day from a pipe leading down to the well head 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. "A storm with gale-force winds could move into a 2, 3 or 4 hurricane by the time it gets there," Allen said.
A storm would have "a very negative effect," Allen said. "At some point we're going to have to break production and get those production units to a safer locale (Our) overall goal in this whole thing is the safety of our personnel. And there are a lot of people on those rigs out there."
The prospect of withdrawing containment equipment and allowing the blown-out well to spew with uncontrolled force is alarming officials along the gulf. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., released a letter Friday calling for Navy vessels to be positioned to help skim oil after any storm passes.
"Figure several days down time as the storm approaches, a few more days as the storm passes, and a couple more days to get things back into place -- and you're facing up to 10 days or more of the well gushing some 60,000 barrels a day unchecked," Nelson said.
"That's 600,000 barrels we'd then have to collect quickly after a storm passed, and before it could hit parts of the Gulf coast," Nelson said. "Right now, there just isn't enough capacity or bigger ships to collect and skim that much oil."