GRAND ISLE, La. | Rough seas generated by Hurricane Alex pushed more oil from the massive spill onto Gulf Coast beaches Wednesday as cleanup vessels were sidelined by the faraway storm's ripple effects.
Although the center of Alex was not an especially powerful storm and hundreds of miles from the Gulf of Mexico beaches being hit by the oil spill, the hurricane still was churning coastal waters across those coasts. Six-foot waves and 25 mph winds were forecast through Thursday just offshore from the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle.
In Louisiana, the storm pushed an oil patch toward Grand Isle and uninhabited Elmer's Island, dumping tar balls as big as apples onto the beach. Cleanup workers were kept at bay by pouring rain and lightning that zigzagged across the dark sky. Boom lining the beach had been tossed about, and it couldn't be put back in place until the weather cleared.
"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."
The loss of dozens of skimmers, combined with gusts driving water into the coast, left beaches especially vulnerable.
Large waves churned up by Hurricane Alex left Alabama beaches splattered with oil and tar balls Wednesday. Long stretches were stained brown as far as 60 yards from the edge of the water.
Oil deposits appeared worse than in past days, and local officials feared the slowdown would make matters worse as tourists come to the beach for the Fourth of July holiday.
"I'm real worried about what is going to happen with those boats not running. It can't help," said Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon.
The nasty weather likely will linger in the Gulf through Thursday, National Weather Service meteorologist Brian LaMarre said.
In Florida, tar lumps the size of dinner plates filled a large swath of beach east of Pensacola in Navarre Beach after rough waves brought the mess ashore. Wind and rain kept crews from cleaning the crude.
"The weather has hampered the cleanup. Our night crews went out there to try and verify exactly how much it was and it's about half a mile," said Santa Rosa County spokeswoman Joy Tsubooka.
She said cleanup crews would work throughout the day Wednesday, but lightning and rain from expected thunderstorms could slow the work.
Officials scrambled to reposition boom to protect the coast and had to remove barges barricading oil from sensitive wetlands. Those operations could soon get a boost. The U.S. accepted offers of help from 12 countries and international organizations.
Alex is projected to stay far from the spill zone off the Louisiana coast. It is not expected to affect work at the site of the blown-out well. But the storm's outer edges complicated the cleanup.
The storm strengthened into a Category 2 hurricane Wednesday evening shortly before it was forecast to barrel into the Mexican coast south of the U.S. border, the National Hurricane Center said.
Alex, the first Atlantic hurricane of the 2010 season, was packing sustained winds of near 100 mph.
Hurricane warnings were posted for parts of the coast along Mexico and Texas. Except for the border area itself, though, most of the warning area is lightly populated.
As Alex approached, skimming efforts off the coasts of Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi had mostly stopped.
The rough seas and winds aren't all bad, though — scientists have said they could 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.