Reporting from Washington and New Orleans — Hundreds of skimming boats prepared Friday to return to calmer gulf waters in the wake of Hurricane Alex and resume cleanup of the massive BP oil spill, which scientists now predict is likely to reach the Florida Keys and Miami in the months ahead.
Using computer simulations based on 15 years of wind and ocean current data, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report Friday showing a 61% to 80% chance of the oil spill reaching within 20 miles of the coasts of the Florida Keys, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, mostly likely in the form of weathered tar balls.
Shorelines with the greatest chance of being soiled by oil — 81% to 100% — stretch from the Mississippi River Delta to the western Florida Panhandle, NOAA scientists said in a statement on its projections for the next four months.
Other areas of Florida have a low probability of oil hits. The Florida Panhandle has already seen tar balls wash up on beaches.
But the chances of oil reaching east-central Florida and the Eastern Seaboard are less than 1% to 20%, NOAA said. And it is “increasingly unlikely” that areas above North Carolina will be hit.
Meanwhile, officials were moving skimming vessels back to sea and were trying to protect the ecologically sensitive Chandeleur Sound area, said Coast Guard Adm. Paul Zukunft.