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Alex spreads tar balls, oily water along Gulf

'We lost all the progress,' says one technician; tides add to hurricane

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Video: Hurricane Alex wreaks havoc in Gulf

  1. Transcript of: Hurricane Alex wreaks havoc in Gulf

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    WILLIAMS: Good evening.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: On one hand, Alex is not a large hurricane as hurricanes go -- it's just a Category 1 -- but on the other hand you do not want to be where it's making landfall tonight. And what may be the most damaging aspect of this storm is just its sheer width, its size and its reach. The Louisiana bayou, as you can see, is nowhere near Hurricane Alex , and yet, with the gulf full of crude oil, the cleanup effort is already getting hurt by this storm. They are in for days of rough seas, high tides, high winds , all of it heading in a bad direction for them up into that marsh. So the effects of Alex will be far reaching, they'll be with us for days. We're going to try to begin our coverage here tonight with Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore in South Padre Island , Texas . Jim , your signal is in and out because it's getting a little sporty there, I guess, a heavy band coming through right now.

    JIM CANTORE reporting: Yeah, Brian , we're just about to get hammered once again. We've gotten a little bit of a break from the rain. But at times I've actually been blown off this dune that I'm standing on, where you can see a very agitated Gulf of Mexico behind me. Satellite depiction to radar, you can clearly see the eye south and east of Brownsville . It's coming in within the next four hours, and with it winds could be high as 100 miles an hour. This will be one of the strongest June hurricanes on record. What a way to start the season. Rainfall, it's still going to come because of the sheer size of this thing, another three to five, possibly as much......inches for the lower Rio Grande Valley and even upriver. And all that has to go somewhere. And with the rain they've already had downriver, that is going to cause major flood problems tonight and during the day tomorrow. Plus we've still got the winds tonight. We've got sporadic power outages here on South Padre and into Brownsville , along with a few tornadoes. It appears we will still have gusts near hurricane force as we get into tonight. But by far and large, Brian , as you were mentioning, the biggest impacts will be on the oil spill. Today we've had gusts over 50 miles an hour, winds as high as 15 to 30 miles an hour and seas eight to 10 feet. That is expected to unfortunately continue tomorrow after the storm makes landfall.

    WILLIAMS: Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel . Jim , you take care as this makes landfall tonight.

msnbc.com news services
updated 6/30/2010 10:56:25 PM ET

GRAND ISLE, Louisiana — Seven-foot waves and 25 mph winds generated by Hurricane Alex, along with high tides, pushed more oil from the massive spill onto Gulf Coast beaches Wednesday.

In Louisiana, heavy rains pounded the Grand Isle region, causing flash flooding in low-lying areas. Long bolts of lightning streaked the dark skies, keeping oil-cleanup operations locked down. A pounding surf had moved some of the boom that lines the beach.

Coast Guard Cmdr. Joe Higgens said the booms protecting the region would probably take a beating because of heavy seas and storm surge, and workers will start putting the barriers back in place once the weather clears.

Earlier Wednesday, Alex pushed an oil patch toward Grand Isle and uninhabited Elmer's Island, dumping tar balls as big as apples on the beach.

"The sad thing is that it's been about three weeks since we had any big oil come in here," marine science technician Michael Malone said. "With this weather, we lost all the progress we made."

BP said suspended operations included skimming, controlled burns of oil on the ocean surface and flights spraying dispersant chemicals. The oil-capture and relief well drilling operations were ongoing.

Image: Tanker turned into a skimmer
Patrick Semansky / AP
A tanker converted to be used as an oil skimmer, right, is anchored on the Mississippi River in Boothville, Louisiana, on Wednesday.

Once the storm passes, a new weapon could be depoyed: a former oil tanker converted into an oil skimmer that stands 10 stories tall and is longer than three football fields.

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Now anchored in the Mississippi River, the ship has never been tested, and many questions remain about how it would operate. Federal officials would have to sign off on using it before BP could give it a cleanup contract.

Although Alex will not make a direct hit on oil platforms in the Gulf, the storm was potent enough that several companies have evacuated rigs. About a quarter of oil production and 9.4 percent of natural gas output in the Gulf of Mexico have been shut, U.S. officials said.

The loss of skimmers, combined with gusts driving water into the coast, left beaches especially vulnerable.

In Alabama, the normally white sand was streaked with long lines of oil. One swath of beach 40 feet wide was stained brown and mottled with globs of oil matted together.

Oily water on roads
Coastal areas are also seeing unusually high tides.

Along the Mississippi coast, exasperated drivers were forced to take detours along some busy beach roads to avoid oily water splashing onshore.

Strong northern winds and high tides pushed tar balls and waves of dark brown mousse patties over several seawalls that line major beach roads.

"I have had enough. Now it is coming up on the roads. Next the oil will be in our homes. Just watch. This is (Hurricane) Katrina all over again, just worse," said Kelly Mills, an area resident.

On Louisiana's Bay Baptiste, whitecaps were visible in the distance as the outer bands of Alex began to move into the region. Several marshes were only partially boom-protected, with oil coating the bottom of reeds as crabs covered in crude scurried on nearby marsh islands.

A thin sheen of oil covered much of the bay's water.

"Because of the spill, any effect from the storm will be bad," said Michael Dardar, of Raceland, Louisiana. "High waves will drag oil over and under the boom."

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The nasty weather will likely linger in the Gulf through Thursday, National Weather Service meteorologist Brian LaMarre said.

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Alex made landfall in Mexico near the Texas border with maximum sustained winds near 105 mph. The National Hurricane Center said the Category 2 storm was the first June Atlantic hurricane since 1995.

Officials scrambled to reposition boom to protect the coast, and had to remove barges that had been blocking oil from reaching sensitive wetlands. Those operations could soon get a boost. The U.S. accepted offers of help from 12 countries and international organizations.

Mexico, Norway, Holland and Japan are providing skimmers; Canada is providing containment boom; and Croatia is pitching in with technical advice. Only one offer has been rejected, according to the chart. Dispersant chemicals offered by France are not approved for use in the U.S.

The U.S. rarely faces a disaster of such magnitude that it requires international aid, though it did accept assistance after Hurricane Katrina.

Winds, waves could break up oil
Scientists have said the rough seas and winds, though, could actually help break apart the oil and make it evaporate faster.

The wave action, combined with dispersants sprayed by the Coast Guard, have helped break a 6-by-30-mile oil patch into smaller patches, Coast Guard Cmdr. Joe Higgens said.

"It's good news because there is less on the surface," Higgens said. "It's surface oil that washes up on the beaches."

Jefferson Parish Council member Chris Roberts said the oil was entering passes Tuesday at Barataria Bay, home to diverse wildlife. A day earlier, barges that had been placed in the bay to block the oil were removed because of rough seas. Boom was being displaced and had to be repositioned, he said.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement said 28 platforms and three rigs in the path of the storm in the western Gulf have been evacuated. Still in the water are vessels being used to capture or burn spewing oil and gas and those drilling relief wells that officials say are the best hope for stopping the leak for good.

So far, between 70 million gallons and 137 million gallons of oil have spewed into the Gulf from the broken BP well, according to government and BP estimates. The higher estimate is enough oil to fill half of New York's Empire State Building with oil.

In related developments Wednesday:

  • The first of several tests on chemicals used to break apart the oil shows all the available dispersants are generally equally toxic, the Environmental Protection Agency said. The testing also showed the chemicals are far less toxic than oil and that none of the chemicals have dangerous effects on the sea life tested. Further tests are underway to see whether the combination of dispersants and oil poses more risks than benefits.
  • An Interior Department official says the government is expected soon to issue more permits for drilling in shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The decision would not affect the six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling imposed in the aftermath of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill. While drilling in shallow waters was not part of the moratorium, there has been confusion about whether new permits will be approved for shallow water leases. Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes told a House hearing that he expects more shallow water drilling applications to be approved as they are received.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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Photos: Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 3

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  1. Crew member Amitabh Rastogi looks through one of 12 vents designed to collect up to 500,000 barrels of oily water a day on the "A Whale" oil skimming ship on June 30. The ship was anchored on the Mississippi River in Boothville, La., and is seeking approval to be put to work. Billed as the world's largest oil skimming vessel, the ship is the length of 3 1/2 football fields and 10 stories high. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Pieces of a $4 million oil booming system in the Perdido Pass in Orange Beach, Ala., are seen on July 1. The system came apart when six-foot seas caused by Hurricane Alex battered the pass. Officials hope to have it back in place by July 3. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Cleanup workers pick up oily globs and other debris on July 1 in Pascagoula, Mississippi. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Tar balls wash up on the beach at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Alabama, on June 30. High waves and rough seas from Hurricane Alex pushed more oil on shore and prevented cleanup crews from working. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Sand blows across a tiger dam on a beach as the outer edges of Hurricane Alex near Grand Isle, La., on June 29. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Oil cleanup workers are evacuated as a feeder band from Tropical Storm Alex causes high winds and lightning in Port Fourchon, La., on June 29. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A surfer watches an oily wave approach as he waits to catch a ride in Destin, Florida, on June 28. Tourism on the Gulf Coast has plummeted, with some hotels and condominium owners saying their business is down by 50 percent. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Workers move absorbent material to try to capture some of the oil washing onto Fourchon Beach from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on June 28 in Port Fourchon, La. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    This image from video provided by BP on June 28 shows oil leaking from the broken wellhead. (BP via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A man walks on the beach where oil is seen in the water as it washes ashore in Orange Beach, Ala., from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on June 26. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Plaquemines Parish Coastal Zone Director P.J. Hahn rescues a heavily oiled bird from the waters of Barataria Bay, La., on June 26. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. People line up to protest offshore oil drilling during the 'Hands Across the Sand' event at Pensacola Beach, Fla., on June 26. The protest took place in hundreds of cities across 30 countries. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Fishing guide Raymond Griffin eats lunch in a nearly empty cookhouse at Griffin Fishing Charters in Lafitte, La., on June 26. Before the spill, Griffin and his seven guides led 250 fishing trips in May alone. He had 600 more bookings for June, July and August, but has already sent out more than $15,000 in refunds. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Coastal residents listen as Ken Feinberg, administrator of the Independent Claims Facility for BP’s $20 billion escrow fund, speaks at a public meeting on the claims process in Larose, La., on June 25. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Lateesha Hektner, an aquarium staffer at Sea World, places a rescued Kemp's Ridley sea turtle in a saltwater tank in Orlando, Fla., on June 25. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  16. Ships work to contain the oil spill near the site of the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico on June 24. (Daniel Beltra / Greenpeace via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Oil cleanup workers hired by BP pick up oil-soaked absorbent booms that were placed at the edge of the surf in Gulf Shores, Ala., on June 24. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster continues to wash ashore along the Alabama and Florida coasts. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. The wake of a ship is visible after it cut through the surface oil near the site of the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico on June 24. (Daniel Beltra / Greenpeace via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Beachgoers and cleanup crews line the oil-covered sand at Pensacola Beach, Fla., June 23. The waters were closed to swimming due to the oil washing up. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A worker cleans up the oil-covered beach at Pensacola Beach, Fla. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Gas and oil continue to leak at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill site, in this frame grab captured from a BP live video feed on June 23. BP had to remove a containment cap over the well after a remote-operated submersible had bumped a vent the day before. The company inspected and replaced the cap. (Bp / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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    A group of young brown pelicans wait in a holding pen to be cleaned by volunteers at the Fort Jackson International Bird Rescue Research Center in Buras, La., on June 20. (Daniel Beltra / Greenpeace via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Randy Schademann, an on-scene coordinator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, returns with water samples from the Gulf of Mexico off the beach at Grand Isle, La., on June 21. Samples are being tested by the EPA for oil and chemicals. (Erik S. Lesser / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Portable toilets stand on the beach as a sunbather plays with her dog in the waters of Dauphin Island, Ala., on June 20. The toilets are for the use of oil clean-up crews as they work to defend the coast against oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Out of work fishermen seeking to be included in the Vessels of Opportunity program talk to representatives during an open house for residents who are economically impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Larose, La., on June 20. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  26. James McGee vacuums oil in Barataria Bay on the coast of Louisiana on June 20. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  27. Pelicans are released into the wild on June 20 at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana. The nearly 40 pelicans had been nursed back to health after being oiled. (Steven Alford / The Caller-Times via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Thick crude oil from the BP spill is seen in Barataria Bay near Port Sulphur, La., on June 20. (Erik S. Lesser / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Rows of protective boom sit in Perdido Pass in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 20. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Workers drill a relief well from the Development Driller II at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on June 19. (Charlie Neibergall / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  31. A controlled burn is carried out on June 19 near the site where two relief wells are being drilled to cap the spill. (Bevil Knapp / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
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    A NASA satellite image taken June 18 shows oil from the spill. The oil appears as varying shades of white, as sunlight is reflected off its surface. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Oil stained pelicans sit on a dredging hose in Barataria Bay on June 19 near Port Sulpher, La. (Sean Gardner / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Gulf Coast Battles Continued Spread Of Oil In Its Waters And Coastline
    Joe Raedle / Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (33) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 3
  2. Image: Oil Spill In The Gulf
    Digitalglobe / Getty Images Contributor
    Slideshow (81) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 2
  3. Image: Dispersed oil caught in the wake of a transport boat floats on the Gulf of Mexico
    Hans Deryk / Reuters
    Slideshow (53) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 1
  4. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Slideshow (10) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Rig explosion

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