Friday, May 28, 2010

Obama inspects beach threatened by Gulf oil spill

By DARLENE SUPERVILLE, Associated Press Writer Darlene Superville, Associated Press Writer

GRAND ISLE, La. – Intent on showing firm command of a deepening Gulf Coast crisis, President Barack Obama kneeled on a Lousiana beach Friday and lamented livelihoods and wildlife imperiled by America's largest-ever oil spill.

He flew to the Gulf Coast amid a rising crescendo of criticism as crude continued to spew into nature after an oil rig exploded and sank April 20. Amid fears the tragedy could also engulf his presidency, Obama has launched a campaign to step up public engagement and directly confront the public's anger.

That frustration — and skepticism about the presidential visit — was palpable here in Grand Isle, a small barrier island town south of New Orleans.

"It's a dog and pony show. What can he really do?" said Billy Ward, 53, who comes to his beach house here every weekend. "If he wants to do something, let him get out there and pump some mud and cement into that hole. Just fix it. Help us."

On Thursday, Obama held a rare White House news conference to address the matter, saying "I take responsibility" for handling what is now considered the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.

And on Friday, he interrupted a Memorial Day weekend stay with his family at their Chicago home for the Gulf visit, with his first stop a beach where absorbent booms and sandbags have been laid for miles to try to keep more oil from washing ashore.

No oil could be seen in the water during Obama's helicopter ride from New Orleans, over Louisiana bayous, to Port Fourchon down the coast from Grand Isle.

That changed when he arrived at Fourchon Beach, however.

A shirt-sleeved Obama walked to the water's edge, stooping as Adm. Thad Allen of the Coast Guard explained what he was seeing.

The beach, sealed off with crime-scene-style yellow tape, is one of the few sandy stretches on Louisiana's coast, where most is marshland. Obama called reporters traveling with him to the water's edge and picked up a few pebble-sized tar balls. No other oil was visible.

"These are the tarballs that they're talking about," he said. "You can actually send out teams to pick up as they wash on shore.
He added, "Obviously the concern is that, until we actually stop the flow, we've got problems."

After about 15 minutes at the beach, the president headed to Grand Isle for a formal briefing from Allen, who is overseeing the spill response for the federal government. At intervals along the way were handwritten wooden signs stuck in the sand with "BEACH CLOSED" in black block letters. One woman held up a sign saying "Clean Up the Gulf" while two people played guitar and sang.

Obama was joined by the governors of Louisiana, Florida and Alabama. He was spending a total of about three hours in the region.

Early in the morning in advance of the president's arrival, hundreds of workers clad in white jump suits and rubber gloves hit the beaches to dig oily debris from the sand and haul it off. Workers refused to say who hired them, telling a reporter only they were told to keep quiet or lose their jobs.

BP PLC is using what is called a "top kill" procedure to try to stop the leak by pumping in heavy mud. If it doesn't work, something BP says will be known within a couple days, Obama's political problems will only compound.

On Thursday, Obama acknowledged his administration could have done a better job on several fronts. They included misjudging the industry's ability to handle a worst-case scenario, not moving sooner to end "cozy and sometimes corrupt" relations between the oil industry and government regulators, and not getting a better estimate on the amount of oil gushing from the broken well.

He spoke in sometimes personal terms about his ownership of the crisis.

"I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down," Obama said. "This is what I wake up to in the morning, and this is what I go to bed at night thinking about."

But locals suffering the effects of the oil that is soiling birds and darkening beaches didn't see much coming from Obama's visit.

A frustrated Larry Freman, 72, who was cleaning up around his vacation home on Grand Isle's main drag, usually packed with tourists for the holiday, said Obama should have stayed home.

"He's wasting his time," the oil business veteran said.

Ward, a developer from Port Allen, was in the midst of building a gated fishing community here when the oil rig exploded. "We can't build this development not knowing if there's going to be any fishing here ever again," he said. "We don't know if it's gonna be six months or six years before we get back to normal, if ever."

Virginia Smith, 36, wasn't impressed.

"I like the man, but I personally feel he's only here to please everybody," she said. "He's not here to make any changes."

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the government was still evaluating offers from 17 countries and organizations for such things as technical expertise and equipment. The Coast Guard hasn't yet accepted any of the foreign help, but BP has accepted booms and skimmers from Mexico and Norway.


Associated Press writers Brian Skoloff, Mary Foster and Kevin McGill along Louisiana's coast and Matt Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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