GRAND ISLE, La. – The crashing waves and gusting winds churned up by now Hurricane Alex put the Gulf oil spill largely in Mother Nature's hands Tuesday. Regardless of whether the storm makes things worse or even better, it has turned many people fighting the spill into spectators.
Oil-scooping ships in the Gulf of Mexico steamed to safe refuge because of the rough seas, which likely will last for days. 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, as the U.S. accepted offers of help from 12 countries and international organizations. Japan, for instance, was sending two skimmers and boom.
Alex is projected to stay far from the spill zone and is not expected to affect recovery efforts at the site of the blown-out well off the Louisiana coast. But the storm's outer edges complicated the cleanup as the oil turned whitecaps red.
Waves were as high as 12 feet in parts of the Gulf, according to the National Weather Service.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Dave French said all skimming efforts had been halted for now off the Louisiana coast. Wayne Hebert, who helps manage skimming operations for BP PLC, 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.
French said workers were using the time off the water to replenish supplies and perform maintenance work.
Alex late Tuesday had maximum sustained winds at 75 mph (120 kph). The National Hurricane Center said the Category 1 storm is the first June Atlantic hurricane since 1995. It is on track for the Texas-Mexico border region and expected to make landfall Wednesday night.
In Grand Isle, dozens of boats, from skiffs up to huge shrimp boats, were tied up at the docks, rocked by waves even in the sheltered marina.
"It's really rough out there," said Coast Guardsman Zac Crawford. "We want the oil cleaned up, but we want people to be safe. We don't want to lose anyone working on the spill."
On the beach, cleanup workers struggled with wind that blew sand into their eyes and mouths and humidity that let the sand stick to their skin.
Farther inland, local officials worried the weather could hamper efforts to keep the oil out of Lake Pontchartrain, which so far has not been affected. The brackish body of water, connected to the Gulf by narrow passes, is a recreational haven for metropolitan New Orleans.
Authorities worried that underwater currents and an easterly wind might drive a 250-square-mile oil slick north of the Chandeleur Islands toward the lake.
"We're very concerned because of the weather," said Suzanne Parsons, spokeswoman for St. Tammany Parish, which is on the north side of the lake. "That means they can't get out and start working it. This may be the first test of our outer lines of defense."
Meanwhile, 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 in an e-mail.
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.
That nasty weather will likely linger in the Gulf through Thursday, National Weather Service meteorologist Brian LaMarre said.
Scientists have said the rough seas and winds 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."
The storm, however, pushed the 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. "With this weather we lost all the progress we made."
So far, between 137.6 million and 70.8 million gallons of oil have spewed into the Gulf of Mexico 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.
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.
Still in the Gulf are vessels 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.
In Louisiana, 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.
All the uncertainty over what Alex and other storms could do to BP's containment effort gave new urgency to the company's efforts to make its operations at the well as hurricane-resistant as possible.
The company said it hopes to install a new oil-capturing system by next week that would allow BP to disconnect the equipment faster if a hurricane threatens and hook it back up quickly after the storm passes.
The containment system now in place is capturing nearly 1 million gallons per day from the well, which is spewing as much as 2.5 million gallons a day, according to the government's worst-case estimate.
Vice President Joe Biden also visited Gulf Coast officials and residents Tuesday. In New Orleans, he said federal and state officials would use a uniform safety standard for seafood coming out of the Gulf. The goal is to quickly reopen closed fishing areas.
Biden said he knows that it's "going to be a lean summer and a lean fall" for the region's fishermen.
"A job is a lot more than about a paycheck," he said. "It's about dignity. It's about respect. ... In your case, it's a way of life."
Associated Press writers Jay Reeves in Gulf Shores, Ala., and Kevin McGill and Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON – With Republicans citing concerns about the growing national debt, the House rejected a bill Tuesday to extend unemployment benefits for people who have been out of work for long stretches.
The House, however, is expected to vote on the bill again as early as Wednesday. And Senate leaders were working Tuesday evening to round up support for another attempt to extend the benefits.
Without an extension, payments would continue to phase out for more than 200,000 people a week. The last extension expired at the end of May. House Democrats said more than 1 million people have already lost benefits.
Congressional Democrats have been trying for weeks to pass the extension as part of a larger tax and spending package, but the larger bill stalled in the Senate. On Tuesday, House Democrats brought up a standalone bill on unemployment benefits.
Democrats brought up the bill under a special procedure in which no amendments were allowed and debate was limited. Under the procedure, the bill needed a two-thirds majority to pass. The vote was 261-155, short of the two-thirds needed.
House Democrats now plan to bring up the bill again under regular business, in which the bill would need only a simple majority to pass, said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Levin said he expects the House to vote on the bill again Wednesday. In Tuesday's vote, nearly all Democrats voted in favor of the bill, while most Republicans opposed it.
"America's unemployed workers cannot wait any longer for us to do the right thing," said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on income security.
The measure would provide up to 99 weekly unemployment checks averaging $335 to people whose 26 weeks of state-paid benefits have run out. The benefits would have been available through the end of November, at a cost of $33.9 billion. There were no offsets in the bill, so the cost would have added to the budget deficit.
"The American people know it isn't right to simply add the cost of this spending to our already overdrawn national credit card," said Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee. "They want to help those in need but also know that someone has to pay when government spends money."
Republicans accused Democrats of playing politics with the measure, since they could have brought up the bill Tuesday in regular order and passed it with a simple majority.
In the Senate, Democratic leaders were working Tuesday evening to build support for a bill that would extend the unemployment benefits and give homebuyers an extra three months to complete their purchases and qualify for a generous tax break.
Under current law, homebuyers who signed purchase agreements by April 30 must close on their new homes by Wednesday to qualify for credits of up to $8,000. Democrats hope to pick up Republican support for the bill by combining the two provisions.
The Senate could vote on its bill as early as this week — if Democrats can round up 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has said she would support a standalone bill to extend unemployment benefits. Democrats would need at least two Republican votes — and support from the entire Democratic caucus — to overcome a filibuster in the Senate.
It's a tough vote for some lawmakers who want to help constituents hit hard by the recession but are wary of being labeled big spenders. The economy is starting to pick up, but unemployment is still high as the nation continues to struggle from the loss of more than 8 million jobs. At the same time, angst over deficit spending is growing as midterm congressional elections near in November.
"We are a community of people. When people lose their jobs and can't find them, we don't stand and simply stand idly by," Levin said.
Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said, "People are frightened by the amount of debt this country owes."
WASHINGTON (Reuters) –
The House of Representatives on Tuesday approved giving extra time to homebuyers trying to get a popular federal tax credit by the end of the month.
The House backed by a vote of 409-5 a measure to extend the closing deadline to September 30 for buyers who met the April 30 deadline to have a signed contract. The current deadline requires those buyers to close the transaction by June 30 to receive the $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers.
The Senate must still approve the measure before President Barack Obama can sign it into law.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sought earlier this month to attach a companion proposal to a separate effort to extend insurance benefits to unemployed workers but the overall measure was rejected by the Senate.
Reid is expected to find another way for the Senate to consider the popular measure before Wednesday, though it remains unclear precisely how he will do that.
Reid faces a tough re-election fight in Nevada, where the U.S. foreclosure crisis is most pronounced.
Real estate agents say thousands of settlements may not be completed by Wednesday because settlement offices are slammed with buyers trying to close on transactions by the end of this month in order to receive the funds.
Critics say the three-month extension is an invitation for fraud, providing prospective home buyers time to back date contracts to a date before April 30 and subsequently closing on those contracts by the new September 30 deadline.
Congress extended the $8,000 tax credit for first time homebuyers last fall and added a $6,500 tax credit for all buyers who were purchasing a primary residence.
(Reporting by Corbett B. Daly, Editing by Diane Craft)