BP and the Coast Guard sent oil-scooping skimming ships in the Gulf of Mexico back to shore Tuesday because nasty weather from Tropical Storm Alex churned up rough seas and powerful winds.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Dave French said all efforts had been halted for now off the Louisiana coast. Efforts also had been halted off the coasts of Florida, Alabama and Louisiana.
French said workers were using the time off the water to replenish supplies and perform maintenance work on equipment.
"We're ready to go as soon as conditions allow us to get those people back out and fighting this oil spill," French said.
The loss of skimming work combined with 25 mph gusts driving water into the coast has left beaches especially vulnerable. In Alabama, the normally white beaches were streaked with long lines of oil, and tar balls collected on the sand. One swath of beach 40 feet wide was stained brown and mottled with globs of oil matted together.
Although Tropical Storm Alex was projected to stay well away from the spill zone before possibly making landfall as a hurricane over Mexico, its outer edges were causing problems out in the Gulf.
Wayne Hebert, who helps manage skimming operations for BP, said all nearshore skimmers were idled off the coasts of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.
"Everyone is in because of weather, whether it's thunderstorms or (high) seas," Hebert said.
Waves were as high as 12 feet Tuesday in some parts of the Gulf.
The surging waves and nasty weather make skimming work unsafe and ineffective, and also can mangle oil-soaking boom.
The Coast Guard had to evacuate workers and equipment from coastal areas in Terrebonne Parish because of tidal surges that could cause flooding, French said.
The only vessels left in the water are being used to capture or burn oil and gas leaking from the well and to drill relief wells that officials say are the best hope for stopping the leak for good.
Ten boats that had been removing oil from the coast of Alabama sought shelter in the protected waters of Mobile Bay or Perdido Bay, and a flotilla of vessels that had been trying to prevent oil from entering the pass into Perdido Bay were gone. In Mississippi, four skimmers were riding out the storm beside Petit Bois Island, Hebert said.
Cleanup crews fought the winds and showers with empty bags blowing across the sand occasionally and the tops of canvas shelters flapping in the breeze.
Hebert said it was impossible to say when the work might resume.
"I don't control the weather," he said.
Meanwhile Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden was visiting with local officials along the Gulf Coast.
Associated Press writers Harry R. Weber in Houston, Brian Skoloff in Pensacola, Fla., Michael Kunzelman and John Flesher in New Orleans contributed to this report.