Kneeling to pick up tar balls on an oil-fouled beach and listening to "heartbreaking stories" of loss, President Barack Obama personally confronted the spreading damage wrought by the crude gushing into the Gulf of Mexico — and the bitter anger that's rising onshore.
"What can he really do?" said Billy Ward, a developer who comes to his beach house here every weekend and, like many other locals, had little positive to say about Obama's trip to the beleaguered region on Friday. "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."
BP PLC, even less popular here, kept up its efforts to "just fix it," using its "top kill" procedure to try to stop the deep oil well leak by pumping in heavy mud. If it doesn't work, something BP says will be known within a couple of days, Obama's own problems will only compound.
He said he understands people "want it made right" and that their frustration won't fade until the oil is stopped and cleaned up.
"It's an assault on our shores, on our people, on the regional economy and on communities like this one," the president said from this small barrier island town threatened by what is now established as the largest oil spill in American history. "People are watching their livelihoods wash up on the beach."
A BP drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and beginning to send millions of gallons of oil spewing into the water. That oil is now beginning to foul beaches, kill wildlife and cripple the tourism and fishing industries on which this area depends. With the crude still flowing freely, criticism has been increasingly aimed at Obama and his administration.
Amid concern that the environmental and economic disaster could also engulf his presidency, Obama has stepped up his public appearances this week to demonstrate that he is engaged. He held a rare White House news conference on Thursday, focusing almost entirely on the spill. And Friday, he flew to the coast for an inspection tour and meetings that lasted about four hours — his second visit in the 39 days of the crisis.
He noted that all may not go well in such a massive, unprecedented undertaking. Mistakes are possible, Obama said. But a lack of urgency about plugging the leak and restoring the region is not, the president declared.
"There are not going to be silver bullets or a lot of perfect answers for some of the challenges that we face," he said in front of an incongruously pristine backdrop of sparkling blue water with dolphins, fish and seabirds frequently spotted. "But we're going to keep at this every day."
Obama made an unqualified promise to coast residents reminiscent of previous presidents speaking after disasters — such as George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"I'm here to tell you that you are not alone, you will not be abandoned, you will not be left behind," Obama said. "The media may get tired of the story, but we will not. We will be on your side and we will see this through."
With more than 20,000 people already working to contain and clean up the oil, the president announced he was tripling the manpower in places where the sticky mess has come ashore or is about to.
As for specific advice for beleaguered local residents and the concerned U.S. public, he pointed them to the White House website, http://www.whitehouse.gov, for guidance.
Obama directed those in the region who are filing claims for damages to count on the government — state and federal — to help cut any red tape. He was joined by the governors of Louisiana, Florida and Alabama.
To the public at large, he pleaded for volunteers to join the cleanup and for tourists to flock to the majority of the region's coastline that is untouched.
His first stop of the day was Fourchon Beach, where absorbent boom and sandbags have been laid for miles to try to keep more oil from darkening the beach. A shirt-sleeved Obama walked to the water's edge, kneeling in the sand as Adm. Thad Allen of the Coast Guard explained what he was seeing.
Obama called over reporters traveling with him and picked up a few of the pebble-sized tar balls. "Obviously the concern is that, until we actually stop the flow, we've got problems," the president said.
He then was off to nearby Grand Isle for his statement and a formal briefing from Allen, who is overseeing the spill response for the federal government. One woman along his route held up a sign saying, "Clean Up the Gulf."
Asked as he was walking off if he was confident in the latest fix attempt, the president demurred. "All I can say is we've got the best minds working on it, and we're going to keep on at it."
"I like the man, but I personally feel he's only here to please everybody," said local resident Virginia Smith.
Ward was in the midst of building a gated fishing community here when the oil rig exploded. "We don't know if it's going to be six months or six years before we get back to normal, if ever," he said.
Early in the morning in advance of the president's arrival, hundreds of workers clad in white jumpsuits 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 they were told to keep quiet or lose their jobs.
AP White House Correspondent Jennifer Loven reported from Washington; AP writer Brian Skoloff contributed from Grand Isle.
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