Residents and business owners along the Gulf of Mexico face a weekend of watching and planning as a weather system that may become the year’s first tropical storm or hurricane lingers on their doorstep.
It’s still too early to tell exactly where the storm might go and how it might affect oil on and below the surface of the Gulf.
A low-pressure system between the coast of Honduras and Grand Cayman island has an 80 percent chance of becoming Alex, the first storm of the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season, on a track toward Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
“Upper-level winds are becoming more conducive for development and a tropical depression will likely form at any time later today or Saturday,” according to a statement posted on the center’s website at 2 p.m. Friday. The system could become a cyclonic storm in the next 48 hours.
A storm in the Gulf of Mexico may become a threat to cleanup efforts for the worst oil spill in U.S. history, as well as to the offshore rigs that produce 30 percent of the country’s oil and 10 percent of its natural gas. The Gulf is also home to seven of the 10 busiest U.S. ports.
“We will have our first real threat to operations, and I am still worried about the oil slick,” said Jim Rouiller, a senior energy meteorologist at Planalytics Inc. “We cannot rule out impact on this spill from Alex.”
Rouiller said a tropical storm or hurricane in the spill area would force all the oil recovery ships to flee, which would mean free-flowing crude from the rig leased by BP. The well may be gushing as many as 60,000 barrels of oil a day.
Michael Brennan, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center, said it’s too early to tell if the storm will affect the northeastern part of the Gulf, where the spill is.
Most models show it traveling over the Yucatan Peninsula this weekend and heading back into the southern part of the Gulf by Monday. After that, some models have it heading toward the spill while others do not.
If the storm does miss the spill area, no one should breathe a sigh of relief, said Joe Bastardi, chief hurricane forecaster at AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pa.
“This is a real warning shot that this season isn’t going to monkey around,” he said. “It is a sign that the pot is bubbling, and if it doesn’t boil over in July, it will in August.”
The effort to capture the oil gushing from the sea bottom could be interrupted for up to two weeks if a storm forces BP to move its equipment out of harm’s way, said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government’s point man on the crisis.
BP would need about five days to secure or move all its equipment to safety from an approaching storm, BP spokesman Bill Salvin said. The equipment includes the rigs drilling the two relief wells.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.