NEW ORLEANS — Some ships prepared to move back to the site of BP's broken oil well Saturday as the remnants of a weakening Tropical Storm Bonnie rolled into the Gulf of Mexico.
The rough weather is still expected to hit the area directly, but the storm — now barely a tropical depression — broke apart as it crossed Florida and moved into the Gulf.
Dozens of vessels evacuated the Gulf Friday ahead of the storm on the orders of Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the federal government's spill chief.
But by Saturday morning, the rig drilling the relief tunnel that will blast mud into the broken well to permanently seal it already was getting ready to head back, BP Spokesman Steve Rinehart said.
“It was a quicker turnaround than what it looked like it was going to be when the storm was predicted to be bigger and more intense,” Rinehart said.
The vessels relaying video images and seismic readings from undersea robots monitoring the leaky well are still in place and may be able to stay, he said.
The mechanical cap that has mostly contained the oil for eight days was left closed, and there was no worry the storm would cause problems with the plug because it's nearly a mile below the ocean's surface.
The government's spill-response team held off on any blanket order for resuming the drilling and cleanup activities.
“The consensus here is they're still monitoring the storm,” spokesman Jonathan Groveman said. “I think decisions are being made on an hourly basis.”
The improving forecast means crews are likely to start drilling again sooner than previously expected.
“The ability to move back sooner will obviously allow it to return to relief well activity sooner than it appeared before,” Rinehart said.
Still, the storm has affected the operation. Work on the relief tunnel stopped Wednesday, and it will take time to restart. Crews on the drilling rig pulled up a mile of pipe in 40-to-60-foot sections and laid it on deck of the drilling rig so they could move to safer water.
It could be Monday before they resume drilling on the relief well and Wednesday before they finish installing steel casing to fortify the relief shaft, according to a timeline Allen previously outlined.
By Friday, workers could start blasting in heavy mud and cement from the top of the well, the first phase of a two-step process to seal the leaking oil well for good.
The first phase could kill the well right away, but BP will still finish drilling a relief tunnel — which could take up to a week — to pump in more mud and cement from nearly two miles under the sea floor.
And the threat of severe weather remains. Hurricane season moves into its most active period in early August and extending into September. The season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30.
Even as the storm weakened, workers on land readied for a possible storm surge that could push oil into the sensitive marsh areas along the coast.
On the tiny resort island of Grand Isle off the southeast Louisiana coast, workers packed up the oil removal operation, tearing down tents, tying down clean boom and loading oil-soaked boom into large containers so it won't pollute the area if the storm causes flooding.
“We're planning for a 2-to-3 foot storm surge so anything that would be affected by that is being moved or stored,” said Big Joe Kramer, 55, who is working on his fourth large spill for Miller Environmental Services, Inc.
Before the cap was attached and closed a week ago, the broken well spewed 94 million to 184 million gallons into the Gulf after the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers.
The plug is so far beneath the ocean surface, scientists say even a severe storm shouldn't damage it.
“There's almost no chance it'll have any impact on the well head or the cap because it's right around 5,000 feet deep and even the largest waves won't get down that far,” said Don Van Nieuwenhuise, director of professional geoscience programs at the University of Houston.