Key ships stationed over BP's crippled well in the Gulf of Mexico were ordered to evacuate Thursday ahead of Tropical Storm Bonnie, but engineers have grown so confident in the leaky cap that they will leave it closed while they are gone.
Tropical Storm Bonnie, which blossomed over the Bahamas and was to enter the Gulf of Mexico by the weekend, could delay by another 12 days the push to plug the broken well for good using mud and cement, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen and BP officials conceded. Even if it's not a direct hit, the rough weather will push back efforts to kill the well by at least a week.
"While this is not a hurricane, it's a storm that will have probably some significant impacts. We're taking appropriate cautions," Allen said in Mobile, Ala.
Allen issued the order Thursday night to begin moving dozens of vessels from the spill site, including the rig that's drilling the relief tunnel engineers will use to permanently throttle the free-flowing crude near the bottom of the well. Some vessels could stay on site, he said.
"While these actions may delay the effort to kill the well for several days, the safety of the individuals at the well site is our highest concern," Allen said.
Keeping ahead of the storm, federal authorities ordered workers to start moving surplus response equipment and vessels to inland staging areas.
Approximately 43,100 people, more than 6,470 vessels and dozens of aircraft have been engaged in the response.
Hurricane Alex, which passed far to south of the spill site, kicked up 10 foot seas and pushed slicks inland toward Louisiana's islands and sensitive delta estuary.
The new storm system caused flooding in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti before reaching tropical storm strength later Thursday, and Allen said crews expected sustained wind above 39 mph at the spill site by early Saturday.
A week of steady measurements through cameras and other devices convinced Allen they don't need to open vents to relieve pressure on the cap, which engineers had worried might contribute to leaks underground and an even bigger blowout. The cap was attached a week ago, and only minor leaks have been detected.
Vice President Joe Biden visited cleanup workers in southern Alabama, and said he was cheered the cap could remain on.
"After the storm's passage we will be right back out there," Biden said.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama will take his own advice and bring his family to the Gulf Coast on vacation next month, something he and first lady Michelle Obama have been urging others to do to help the area's suffering economy.
The White House said the Obamas will visit Florida's coast the weekend of Aug. 14.
Obama has made four trips to the region, including an overnight stay, since the well exploded in April. First lady Michelle Obama was scheduled to make her second visit the area today.
The White House did not say where in Florida the Obamas would be spending their time.
But wherever the family ends up, it will just be three Obamas — the president, the first lady and 9-year-old Sasha — instead of the usual foursome. Sister Malia, 12, will be away at camp for the first time — also at a location not disclosed.
Scientists say even a severe storm shouldn't affect the well cap, nearly a mile beneath the ocean surface. "Assuming all lines are disconnected from the surface, there should be no effect on the well head by a passing surface storm," said Paul Bommer, professor of petroleum engineering at University of Texas at Austin.
Charles Harwell, a BP contractor monitoring the cap, was also confident.
"That cap was specially made, it's on tight, we've been looking at the progress and it's all good," he said after his ship returned to Port Fourchon, La.
Before the cap was attached and closed a week ago, the broken well spewed 94 million to 184 million gallons into the gulf.
The federal panel investigating the causes of the rig explosion has focused this week on whether financial calculations may have trumped safety considerations. When the rig exploded April 20, BP was 43 days behind schedule, costing the company more than $21 million in rig rental rates, company officials say.
Government investigators Thursday pressed a BP official who supervised the Deepwater Horizon about whether the company took shortcuts to save money and time by selecting riskier equipment at the oil rig.
The official, John Guide, denied that BP had chosen a potentially risky type of well casing over more traditional equipment because it would save the company three days and $7 million to $10 million.
"It just happened to be a case where it also saved money," Guide said.
"Is it true that decisions were made based on cost savings?" asked Jason Mathews, a member of the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which is overseeing the hearings along with the Coast Guard.
"The culture is that safety is the priority," Guide said.
Also Thursday, the widow of one of the 11 rig workers killed in the explosion testified that her husband had felt pressure to continue drilling despite frequent equipment malfunctions. Natalie Roshto said her husband, Shane, a 22-year-old roustabout for Transocean, the rig's owner, expressed grave concerns.
Her testimony before the six-member panel in Kenner, La., reinforced a growing perception that workers were concerned about the rig's safety standards. Roshto said her husband had not expressed similar concerns about other wells.
"From Day 1, he deemed this the well from hell," Roshto said. "He said Mother Nature just didn't want to be drilled here."
Information from the Associated Press, New York Times and Miami Herald contributed to this report.