President Barack Obama promised Saturday to fight the massive oil spill alongside the people of the Gulf Coast, as a cap placed over the gusher was collecting only some of the crude and a slow-motion catastrophe spread deeper into the marshes and beaches of four states.
The spreading slick arrived with the tide on the Florida Panhandle's white sands Friday as BP continued its desperate and untested bid to arrest what is already the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.
"It's brutally unfair. It's wrong. And what I told these men and women — and what I have said since the beginning of this disaster — is that I'm going to stand with the people of the Gulf Coast until they are made whole," the president said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address, recorded in Grand Isle on the Louisiana coast.
Obama also maintained his increasingly forceful tone toward BP PLC, the oil giant responsible for the cleanup: "We will make sure they pay every single dime owed to the people along the Gulf coast."
The government's point man for the crisis, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said Friday that there had been progress but cautioned against overoptimism.
Early Friday, he guessed that the cap was collecting 42,000 gallons a day — less than one-tenth of the amount leaking from the well. Later in the day, BP said in a tweet that since it was installed Thursday night, it had collected about 76,000 gallons.
The widening scope of the disaster deepened the anger and despair just as Obama arrived for his third visit to the stricken Gulf Coast.
On Obama's trip to the Grand Isle on the Louisiana coast, his motorcade passed a building that had been adorned with his portrait reminiscent of posters of him during his presidential campaign. Instead of "hope" or "change," the words "what now?" were on his forehead.
The oil has reached the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. It has turned marshlands into death zones for wildlife and stained beaches rust and crimson. Some said it 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.
The mayor of Grand Isle, David Camardelle, choked up as he told the president of staying up nights worrying.
"We don't know what's going to happen tomorrow," Camardelle said. "I'm trying to keep Grand Isle alive."
A device resembling an upside-down funnel was lowered over the blown-out well a mile beneath the sea 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 early Saturday through vents designed to prevent ice crystals from clogging the cap. Engineers hoped to close several vents.
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.
David Lucas of Jonesville, La., and a group of friends abruptly cut their visit short after wading into oily water. "It was sticky brown globs out there," Lucas said after he and the others cleaned their feet and left.
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.
Escambia County Commission Chairman Grover Robinson said there are no plans to close the beach.
"For the most part if you went and walked on the sand that was not right there on the shoreline, you were in no danger of engaging tar balls," he said Friday.
At Gulf Shores, Ala., a slick of oil hundreds of yard long washed ashore at a state park, coating the white sand with thick, reddish goo.
A squad of cleanup workers bagged up the oil, but more washed in before they could remove the debris from the first run.
Rebecca Thomasson of Knoxville, Tenn., watched as drops of oil turned the surf brown and collected at the waterline, smearing the beach with big, thick globs.
"This makes me sick," said Thomasson, her legs and feet smeared with brown streaks of crude.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said he's frustrated with the Coast Guard's response on the state's coast and will consider closing the beaches if the oil becomes a public health threat.
Back in Grand Isle, one frustrated man didn't hold back before the president's visit.
"He ain't much of a leader," Eugene Ryman Jr. said of Obama. "The beach you can clean up. The marsh you can't. Where's the leadership? I want to hear what's being done. We're going to lose everything."
Meanwhile, BP's Hayward assured investors that the company had "considerable firepower" to cope with the severe costs. Hayward and other senior BP executives struck a penitent note in their first comprehensive update to shareholders since the oil rig explosion, promising to meet its obligations related to the spill.
Frank Basson has a comfortable monopoly along the main drag in Grand Isle. He owns a restaurant, souvenir shop and daiquiri spot. Business plummeted once oil washed up on the shores, but he isn't going anywhere.
He came back after Hurricane Katrina, and if he has to close his doors, he figures he'll find a new venture. But he worries about the greater community.
"BP has to take care of us," he said.
Associated Press writers Holbrook Mohr in East Grande Terre, La.; Greg Bluestein in Grand Isle, La.; Eileen Sullivan in Washington; Paul J. Weber in Houston; Jay Reeves in Gulf Shores, Ala.; and Melissa Nelson in Pensacola, Fla., contributed to this report.
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