Obama Visits Areas Impacted by Gulf Spill
NEW ORLEANS - Stormy skies greeted President Obama as he arrived in Louisiana on Friday to encourage residents and get a fresh look at the horrifying oil spill that is testing his presidency.
Obama immediately huddled in a small airport building with Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the top federal official on the spill, along with the governors of Louisiana, Florida and Alabama and other officials.
There are no shortage of topics to discuss: BP's ongoing effort to cap the well; improving coordination between BP, the Coast Guard and local leaders; compensation to fishermen; and a six-month moratorium on deep water drilling.
Some local leaders have opposed the moratorium, claiming it's hurting residents employed by oil and gas companies and deepening the state's economic demise.
"Don't hold the entire industry responsible for one company's horrible mistakes," said Chett Chiasson, executive director of Port Fourchon, which services the oil and gas industry. "This six-month moratorium will have cascading effects for many, many years. People will lose their jobs in the next couple of weeks."
George Barisch, president of the Louisiana's United Commercial Fishermen's Association, said Obama should hear what out-of-work fishermen have to say and create government assistance for them.
Waiting for BP to compensate them will take years to get through court hearings and legal entanglements, he said.
"Don't just say fishermen will be taken care of and BP will have to pay - put something in place now until BP pays for it," Barisch said. "This whole industry will fall apart because of BP."
Obama's return to the Gulf Coast is significant in that it shows his administration is engaged, said John Tesvich, president of Louisiana Oyster Dealers and Growers Association. But even more important is what comes out of his time here and how the president affects change, he said.
"Everybody here is constantly talking about the situation and looking at what the Obama administration is doing and how it's handling the situation," Tesvich said. "He knows this is very important."
Meanwhile, BP engineers managed to place a containment cap atop of the gushing well Thursday night though thousands of gallons crude continued escaping into the Gulf. To put the cap in place, BP had to slice off the pipe with giant shears after a diamond-edged saw became stuck.
The cap is siphoning an estimated 42,000 gallons a day - less than one-tenth of the overall daily stream of at least 500,000 gallons gushing from the well, Allen told reporters Friday. Permanently capping the well by drilling nearby relief wells is still two months away.
"Progress is being made, but we need to caution against over-optimism," Allen said.
BP also announced on Friday it is creating a $360 million escrow account to immediately fund a plan to build a string of barrier islands off Louisiana coast to block the oil from reaching shore. The federal government directed BP to pay for the plan after it received approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Obama's staff had not released the president's exact itinerary Friday, except to say he would meet with state and local leaders and at least one fisherman's family in Grand Isle, one of the front lines in the fight against the oil.
Grand Isle Councilman Jay LaFont said he hopes Obama sees firsthand how oil is already pushing into nearby Barataria Bay and seeping into some of the state's most fragile marshes, home to pelicans, shrimp, oysters, blue crabs and a variety of other wildlife. Better coordination between BP contractors, government officials and local leaders is needed, he said.
"People are still very skeptical," LaFont said of the president's visit. "The president says he's in charge, but it sure doesn't look like it to us in this area down here. If he was in charge, he wouldn't let this oil come into our bays."