BY CHARLES RABIN AND DANIEL CHANG
Rough seas and high winds from Hurricane Alex, the category 1 storm churning in the Gulf of Mexico far west of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, forced the suspension Tuesday of skimming and booming operations off the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama and Florida, a BP spokesman said.
Inclement weather did not affect operations at the site of the wellhead, about 41 miles off the Louisiana coast, where large ships are capturing oil and drilling relief wells that offer the best chance to seal the undersea gusher.
But smaller ships contracted by BP to skim oily water, lay boom and transport personnel were idled for the day, said Bryan Ferguson, a BP representative manning the unified command station in New Orleans.
"When seas get above two to three feet, it becomes a challenge for skimming and booming," Ferguson said, noting that about 2,800 vessels of opportunity were currently contracted for the spill response.
The National Weather Service reported seas as high as 12 feet in parts of the gulf. Alex, the first Atlantic hurricane of the 2010 season, is forecast to hit the Mexican coast, just south of Texas, later this week.
Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden began a tour of the region Tuesday, meeting with national and local response teams and residents affected by the spill.
In New Orleans, 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."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who met Biden as he arrived Tuesday morning, said he planned to press the vice president for a stronger federal response to the spill.
Jindal said heavy patches of oil were spotted about 3 miles offshore from Grand Isle on Monday.
"We didn't see one vessel out there trying to capture that oil," he said. "We need to have a greater sense of urgency. They need to treat this like the war that it is."
Jindal added that he will ask BP to fund a 20-year, $400 million program to test seafood for oil contamination and rehabilitate fisheries.
He said 30 percent of the nation's seafood comes from waters off Louisiana, where commercial fishing is a $2 billion-a-year industry and recreational anglers contribute another $1 billion annually to the local economy.
"Our message to BP is that the cost of this program is just a fraction of the damages that could be caused if we don't do this," Jindal said.
As the vice president toured New Orleans, and later Pensacola, officials at the Florida Peninsula Command Post in Miami said they are prepared to respond should oil reach the state's southern shores - a risk that appears distant for now.
Oil from the broken undersea well is now 600 miles from the Florida Keys, and more than 100 miles from Panama City, according to members of the command post, which was established three weeks ago and houses representatives of BP, the Coast Guard, the Interior Department and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"We're in a pretty safe place along the Florida peninsula," said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Eric Stabenau. "The projections are for the oil to go even further away from Florida" because of winds from Alex.
High seas and winds have delayed the launch of a new system for capturing more oil.
The system, which consists of a flexible pipe attached to a containment dome lowered over the ruptured wellhead, would siphon oil to the Helix Producer, a ship with the capacity to collect 20,000 to 25,000 barrels a day. BP spokesmen said the system should be ready to launch by July 8.
BP reports capturing about 24,000 barrels a day from the broken well, using two separate methods: a containment dome attached to the ship Discoverer Enterprise via a fixed pipe that siphons oil to the surface; and a "choke line" from the failed blowout preventer that sends crude to a second ship, the Q4000.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man on the spill, said on Monday that the third system would be delayed because Alex may produce 10- to 12-foot seas in the immediate area of the response effort today.
"They're going to have to stop the preparations for the Helix Producer," he said, adding that high seas and winds from Alex also could push oil farther inland to marshes and bays.
In Florida, tar balls, tar patties and sheen have been reported on beaches in the western Panhandle, mostly in Escambia County, where the Health Department issued an advisory warning swimmers to avoid waters from the Pensacola Beach Fishing Pier west to the Pensacola Pass, including Fort Pickens.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.