PENSACOLA, Fla. — Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen late Thursday ordered BP to begin evacuating the Deepwater Horizon oil spill site after the National Hurricane Center predicted that sustained winds of more than 55 miles per hour would reach the area perhaps as early as Saturday.
"Due to the risk that Tropical Storm Bonnie poses to the safety of the nearly 2,000 people responding to the BP oil spill at the well site, many of the vessels and rigs will be preparing to move out of harm's way beginning tonight," Allen said. "This includes the rig drilling the relief well that will ultimately kill the well, as well as other vessels needed for containment. Some of the vessels may be able to remain on site, but we will err on the side of safety."
Allen said he had directed BP to leave the well sealed during the evacuation and said that monitoring of the well, which has not leaked oil into the Gulf of Mexico for more than a week, would continue until the last possible moment. He said BP has been told to move ships guiding remotely operated vehicles providing a video feed from the capped well last and to return them to the area first.
"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," he said.
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Federal and state oil cleanup workers had begun the process of battening down across the Gulf of Mexico for a weekend tropical storm, pulling out booms and calling vessels back to port from anti-contamination efforts in the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
It was Day 94 of the crisis.
"The protection of the equipment and crew is paramount to ensure maximum ability to respond to any new challenges a storm may pose to the enormous mission,'' said the federal on-scene coordinator, Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft.
At 8 p.m., the National Hurricane Center said Bonnie had sustained winds of 40 mph. A center projection of likely 56-mph wind speeds showed the storm sweeping across the Deepwater Horizon site 40 miles off the Louisiana coast in 120 hours.
The storm has already caused flooding in Puerto Rico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. A tropical storm warning was issued for the central and northwestern Bahamas and Florida from Golden Beach on the Atlantic south to the Florida Keys and north along the western coast to Bonita Springs, south of Tampa.
No warnings or watches had been issued yet for the Louisiana or Mississippi coast, but Allen ordered the evacuation as part of a long-discussed plan because many of the ships and drilling rigs at the BP site require days of preparation to be ready to flee.
The Development Driller III, which is drilling the primary relief well, for example, must pull up more than 5,000 feet of drilling pipe and secure it on deck before it can leave the area, Allen said, a process that would require 8 to 12 hours. Other, smaller vessels take less time, but still require days to depart, though the evacuation process has been made considerably less complicated by the well's newest containment cap; no ship is actually hooked up to pipes delivering crude oil from the sealed well.
The relief well is within feet of intercepting the Deepwater Horizon well, though still weeks away from actually killing the well, Allen said earlier. The evacuation will delay that process.
Allen said, however, that officials are increasingly confident in the integrity of the Deepwater Horizon well — enough so to leave it unattended with the cap in place.
Nearer to shore, federal authorities ordered workers to start moving surplus response equipment to inland staging areas, according to a government statement, including the evacuation of "specialized vessels from the path of any severe weather to prevent damage and ensure that oil recovery operations can resume as soon as possible after a storm.''
Approximately 43,100 personnel, more than 6,470 vessels and dozens of aircraft have been engaged in the response effort.
Additionally, both Florida and federal deployed boom was being removed from marsh areas where oil was not threatening the shore to prevent damage from the heavy equipment getting pushed into the delicate area by strong winds and high tides.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said it was removing nearly 316,261 feet of state-deployed boom before the storm hit.
The booms being removed by the state environmental agency were supplemental -- placed in areas not initially covered by BP's booming plans.
BP paid for it, through a $50 million grant to Florida officials for coastal protection efforts.
"During a tropical storm, boom can cause additional damage to the natural resources that we are trying to protect from oil spill impacts,'' Michael Sole, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said in a statement.
"Given the current oil spill trajectories and the tropical activity in the Gulf of Mexico, we think this is the best decision for Florida's communities.''
In Escambia County, home to Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key, county officials said oil was more than 100 miles west of the county and removing the boom would have little short-term impact.
Also, the area has been experiencing less tar ball activity in the past two weeks compared to the original onslaught in early June.
"We certainly understand and respect that there's a time consideration in safely removing the booms,'' said Sonya Daniel, a county spokeswoman. "We have assurances that in the event that the oil shifts and we're under threat again, the boom will be replaced. Until then, we're watching and monitoring the situation.''
(Fred Tasker and Andre C. Fernandez contributed to this report )