A huge patch of rough weather off southwest Florida strengthened into a tropical depression Tuesday night and the storm threat caused drilling operations at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill site to be suspended.
The National Hurricane Center reported that forecasters expect the depression, which was packing sustained winds of 35 mph, to grow into Tropical Storm Danielle today.
The storm dragged heavy showers over much of the Tampa Bay area Tuesday. About eight-tenths of an inch of rain fell in St. Petersburg, while Tampa had a half-inch.
Wind gusts in St. Petersburg topped 40 mph when a strong cell moved through Tuesday afternoon, but no damage was reported, according to the National Weather Service in Ruskin.
Rain chances will remain at 60 percent today, said Bay News 9 meteorologist Juli Marquez.
Forecasters on Tuesday issued a tropical storm warning for the northern Gulf of Mexico from Destin in the Florida Panhandle to Intracoastal City, La., an area that includes New Orleans. Forecasters expect the storm to speed up as it strengthens, so it could begin affecting those areas by tonight.
Crews drilling a relief well to plug BP's burst oil well in the Gulf of Mexico will stop working until the storm passes.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man for the disaster, says the suspension could mean a delay of two or three days in completing the relief well. Completion of the relief well is one of the last steps toward ending any threat from the well that spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil over three months before a temporary cap sealed it in mid-July.
Crews will pop in a temporary plug to keep what they've drilled so far safe, but they won't send workers back to land. They have 30 to 50 feet left to drill.
The new well is meant to allow BP to pump mud and cement into the broken one from deep underground for a so-called bottom kill. This would complement a mud-and-cement plug injected into the top of the well last week.
Allen has insisted for days that BP go ahead with the bottom kill, even though the top plug appeared to be holding. On Tuesday, though, he said testing still needs to be done on the well before a final decision is made.
"I'm not sure we know that ... I don't want to prejudge whether we are going to do it or not going to do it. It will be conditions-based."
He later assigned a "very low probability" to the bottom kill not being done, but then said: "We will let everybody know" if that changes.
BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells said it's "really a possibility" that cement that engineers pumped in through the top went down into the reservoir, came back up and plugged the annulus, which is between the inner piping and the outer casing.
Allen also said officials were removing some boom that had been put out to catch oil in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. He said the boom will be put in storage and be available for future use if necessary.
The spill started with an April 20 explosion that sank the BP-leased drilling rig Deepwater Horizon and killed 11 workers.
More than 300 lawsuits filed in the aftermath against BP and other companies will be handled by a federal judge in New Orleans, a judicial panel said Tuesday.
An order issued Tuesday by the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation said 77 cases plus more than 200 potential "tag-along" actions will be transferred to U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier.
The judicial panel's order says the federal court based in New Orleans is the best place for the litigation because southeast Louisiana is the "geographic and psychological 'center of gravity' " for the cases.
Information from the Associated Press supplemented this report.