Pensacola Beach, Fla. The smell of oil hangs heavy in the sea air. Children with plastic shovels scoop up clumps of goo in the waves. Beachcombers collect tarballs as if they were seashells.
The BP catastrophe arrived with the tide on the Florida Panhandle’s white sands Friday as the company worked to adjust a cap over the gusher in a desperate and untested bid to arrest what is already the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. The widening scope of the slow-motion disaster deepened the anger and despair just as President Barack Obama arrived for his third visit to the stricken Gulf Coast.
The oil has now reached the shores of four Gulf states — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida — turning its marshlands into death zones for wildlife and staining its beaches rust and crimson in an affliction that some said brought to mind the plagues and punishments of the Bible.
“In Revelations it says the water will turn to blood,” said P.J. Hahn, director of coastal zone management for Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish. “That’s what it looks like out here — like the Gulf is bleeding. This is going to choke the life out of everything.”
He added: “It makes me want to cry.”
Six weeks after the April 20 oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers, the well has leaked somewhere between 22 million and 47 million gallons of oil, according to government estimates.
A device resembling an upside-down funnel was lowered over the blown-out well a mile beneath the sea late Thursday to try to capture most of the oil and direct it to a ship on the surface. But crude continued to escape into the Gulf through vents designed to prevent ice crystals from clogging the cap. Engineers hoped to close several vents throughout the day.
“Progress is being made, but we need to caution against overoptimism,” said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government’s point man for the crisis. Early in the day, he guessed that the cap was collecting 42,000 gallons a day — less than one-tenth of the amount leaking from the well. Since it was installed, it had collected about 76,000 gallons, BP said in a tweet Friday night.
Similarly, later in the day, in a visit to Louisiana, Obama said it was “way too early to be optimistic” about the latest attempt to stanch the spill.
One unanswered question was whether the cap fit snugly. BP sheared off the well pipe before installing the cap but was unable to make a smooth cut.
As the operation went on at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, the effect of the BP spill was increasingly evident.
Swimmers at Pensacola Beach rushed out of the water after wading into the mess, while other beachgoers inspected the clumps with fascination, some taking pictures. Children were seen playing with the globs as if they were Play-Doh.
Health officials said that people should stay away from the mess but that swallowing a little oil-tainted water or getting slimed by a tarball is no reason for alarm.
Obama lashes out
Dogged for being too calm in crisis, President Barack Obama unleashed frustration for all to see Friday, warning BP it had better do right by the people whose lives it has wrecked.
The president’s third trek to the Gulf of Mexico was about the workers with no government titles, the shrimpers and the shopkeepers, the fishermen whose lives have been upended and are running out of people to blame.
Yet Obama’s trip was also about him.
He says it serves little substantive point to go around and yell — that people want results, not a show — but presidents face peril if they do not connect emotionally. As the crisis has dragged on — and his poll ratings have slipped — his words for BP’s leaders have grown sharper.
“I don’t want them nickel-and-diming people down here,” Obama said after his latest briefing on the oil response. He promised his government would look over BP’s shoulder to ensure it was paying out claims.
Obama cast the oil company as a corporate giant interested in protecting its image with TV ads and its shareholders with bountiful dividends.
“I don’t want somebody else bearing the costs of those risks that they took,” Obama said. “I want to make sure that they’re paying for it.”
From his briefing outside New Orleans, Obama bounded on a two-hour-plus motorcade drive to Grand Isle, La., a small barrier island, to hear from the people.
In casual clothes, Obama went to a bait shop to talk to fishing industry workers about how the disastrous oil spill is affecting their business. The shop owner was there to meet him along with a shrimper, an oysterman, a marina owner and others.
Obama rolled up his sleeves and sat down at a table with the workers, and they all dug into shrimp and corn on the cob. One by one, they told Obama their gut-wrenching stories, which he then related to reporters.
“Terry’s been shrimping out here for 45 years. Right now things are completely shut out,” the president said. “Floyd has oil seeping into these oyster beds.”