07/24/2010 09:04 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Weakened Tropical Storm Bonnie May Grow Stronger As It Approaches Gulf Oil Spill, Forecasters Say

ON THE GULF OF MEXICO (AP) -- Ships steamed to safer waters and coastal workers packed up oil removal operations as remnants of a weakening Bonnie rolled into the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday.

By daybreak, all but a handful of the ships working at the well site were expected to be out of the way of the storm. The mechanical cap that has mostly contained the oil for eight days was left closed, and there was no worry the storm could cause any problems with the plug because it's nearly a mile below the ocean's surface.

Bonnie made landfall south of Miami early Friday as a feeble tropical storm with top sustained winds of 40 mph. It broke apart as it crossed Florida and was barely a tropical depression as it moved into the Gulf. Forecasters said it was weakening and less likely to strengthen as it neared the spill site.

The threat of a severe storm forced many ships to calmer seas. The vessels relaying video images and seismic readings from undersea robots monitoring BP's broken oil well were to be among the last to leave, and might even stay and ride out the rough weather, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said.

If the robots are reeled in, the only way officials will know whether the cap has failed will be if oil pooling on the surface appears in satellite and aerial views -- if the clouds aren't too thick.

"Preservation of life and preservation of equipment are our highest priorities," said Allen, the federal government's spill chief who ordered the evacuation of most ships 40 miles from the Louisiana coast

Workers on land readied for a possible storm surge that could push oil into the sensitive marsh areas along the coast.

On the tiny resort island of Grand Isle off the southeast Louisiana coast, workers packed up the oil removal operation, tearing down tents, tying down clean boom and loading oil-soaked boom into large containers so it won't pollute the area if the storm causes flooding.

"We're planning for a 2-to-3 foot storm surge so anything that would be affected by that is being moved or stored," said Big Joe Kramer, 55, who is working on his fourth large spill for Miller Environmental Services, Inc.

At the spill site, the water no longer looks thick with gooey tar. But the oil is still there beneath the surface, staining the hulls of boats motoring around in it.

Before the cap was attached and closed a week ago, the broken well spewed 94 million to 184 million gallons into the Gulf after the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers.

The plug is so far beneath the ocean surface, scientists say even a severe storm shouldn't damage it.

"There's almost no chance it'll have any impact on the well head or the cap because it's right around 5,000 feet deep and even the largest waves won't get down that far," said Don Van Nieuwenhuise, director of professional geoscience programs at the University of Houston.

Crews of other vessels, including one boring the tunnel meant to kill the flow of crude for good, spent Friday hauling in their gear and getting out of the storm's way. Workers were pulling up a mile of pipe in 40-to-60-foot sections and laying it on deck of the drilling rig so they could move to safer water, probably to the southwest flank of the storm.

Shell Oil also was evacuating its operations in the Gulf, moving out more than 600 workers and shutting down production at all but one well sheltered safely in Mobile Bay.