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A Gulf gale might halt BP oil collection efforts for two weeks

Winds in excess of 45 miles per hour days away from the Deepwater Horizon gusher in the Gulf of Mexico spill could force at-sea workers to abandon their oil collection efforts for as long as two weeks, the head of the national response effort said Friday.

That timetable would conservatively unleash another half-million barrels of oil back in the sea -- twice the Exxon Valdez spill. Using upper-end federal estimates of the leak, 840,000 barrels would gush out. That's 35 million gallons.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen described the cut-and-run plan in a conference call to reporters Friday morning in which he said, "Realistically, out of an abundance of caution,'' the Deepwater Horizon well would remain "unattended" for "14 days.''

Hurricane contingencies have become major concerns for planners trying to clean up the runaway Deepwater Horizon spill in its 67th day.

There's a tropical wave in the west-central Caribbean kicking up thunderstorms from the northern coast of Honduras to the Grand Cayman.

The weather service said Friday afternoon there was a 80 percent chance the system would become a tropical cyclone over the weekend -- a storm system that could produce powerful winds.

The Air Force sent out a hurricane hunter plane Friday afternoon to explore the as-yet unformed weather system, which could yet shape up to become the first named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season.

In Washington, Allen told reporters that planning for a hurricane would require an evacuation of the wrecked oil rig's site once gale force winds are predicted to arrive within five days. Gale force winds are 40 knots and above, or 46 miles per hour.

That means unplugging the makeshift system called a "top hat'' that has been collecting a portion of the gushing crude.

Were there a coming hurricane, coastal clean-up efforts would also be abandoned, said Allen, who until recently was the commandant of the Coast Guard. "I don't think anyone wants a vessel out there trying to skim oil,'' he said.

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