By TOM BREEN
Associated Press Writer
NEW ORLEANS — Cleanup crews across the Gulf of Mexico surveyed damage done by last week’s hurricane while contending Sunday with choppy seas that idled many of the boats dedicated to keeping oil from hitting vulnerable beaches and marshes.
Offshore skimming vessels were able to operate in Louisiana waters, but not off the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, officials said.
“We’ve got our guys out there and they’re docked and ready, but safety is a huge concern for us, especially with the smaller vessels,” said Courtnee Ferguson, a spokeswoman for the Joint Information Command in Mobile, Ala.
The offshore skimming in those states has essentially been curtailed for nearly a week, thanks to weather generated earlier by Hurricane Alex, even though it was never closer than 500 miles or so to the spill.
On Sunday, huge barges used to collect oil from skimming vessels were parked at the mouth of Mobile Bay, waiting for conditions to subside as waves rose to about 5 feet high miles offshore.
The current spate of bad weather is likely to last well into next, according to the National Weather Service.
“This should remain fairly persistent through the next few days, and maybe get a little worse,” meteorologist Mike Efferson said.
On the shore, beach cleanup crews were making progress on new oil that washed up thanks to the high tides generated by last week’s bad weather.
In Grand Isle, about 800 people were removing tar balls and liquid oil from seven miles of beach, Coast Guard Cmdr. Randal Ogrydziak said.
“In a day or two, you wouldn’t be able to tell the oil was even there,” he said.
By Wednesday, Ogrydziak said they should have a machine on the beach that washes sand where the oil washed ashore.
Crews have also been working to put containment boom thrown around by the storms back into place, he said.
Along the Louisiana coast, skimmers that were able to operate included the giant converted oil tanker known as A Whale.
Taiwanese shipping firm TMT, which owns the vessel, calls it the world’s largest oil skimmer. Sunday was the second day of testing the ship’s abilities for U.S. Coast Guard and BP officials who will make a decision about whether to put it — and its purported capacity to suck up 21 million gallons of oil-tainted water per day — to work in the Gulf.
But even the giant vessel is having trouble with the weather, TMT spokesman Bob Grantham said in an e-mail Sunday.
“As was the case yesterday, the sea state, with waves at times in excess of ten feet, is not permitting optimal testing conditions,” he said.
The vessel’s crew is hoping for calmer conditions, so they can test its skimming ability with a containment boom system designed to direct greater amounts of oily water to the ship’s intake vents.
A decision on whether the ship can be used to help scour the crude from the Gulf will be made in a few days, Grantham said.
So far, weather has not slowed drilling on two relief wells that could be the best hope of finally plugging what has become the worst oil leak in Gulf history. BP officials have said they’re running slightly ahead of schedule on the drilling, but expect weather or other delays.
Early to mid-August is still the timeframe for the completion of the drilling.