Obama visits Gulf Coast, pledges long-term federal help on cleanup

By Theresa Vargas and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 28, 2010; 6:43 PM

GRAND ISLE, LA. -- A day after declaring the Gulf oil spill an "unprecedented disaster," President Obama on Friday visited the Louisiana coast for a firsthand assessment of the threat posed by the enormous slick now lapping ashore, pledging a long-term federal commitment to cleaning up the region.

"Our response treats this event for what it is: an assault on our shores, on our people, on the regional economy and on communities like this one," he said after an hours-long tour. "This is our highest priority, and it deserves a response equal to the task."

Standing behind Obama was a bipartisan array of gulf state governors, senators and congressmen, and local officials, whom he met with for more than two hours to cap his tour. The sentiments along the fearful coast about Obama's visit ranged from grateful to angry, even as he announced a tripling of Coast Guard personnel on beaches imminently threatened by the oil.

"There are not going to be silver bullets or a lot of perfect answers for some of the challenges we face," Obama said. "Understandably, the feelings of frustration and anger, the sense that any response is inadequate, we expect that frustration and anger to continue until we actually solve this problem."

The trip was Obama's second to the gulf since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank on April 20. Since then, as much as 39 million gallons of oil have gushed into the ocean from a broken wellhead 5,000 feet below the surface, creating a spill that has surpassed the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in terms of volume.

Obama told a White House news conference Thursday that he is ultimately responsible for ensuring that British Petroleum plugs the leak, which it is attempting to do, and cleans up the spill.

But Obama is coming under sharp criticism from both parties for his management of the crisis, which some have complained has appeared technical and detached from the mounting fear in the Gulf region. Opinion polls show only a minority of Americans approve of the way he has handled the spill.

On Friday, Obama spoke forcefully and emotionally about the spill's unfolding consequences for residents of the Gulf, whose calm waters served as the backdrop for his remarks.

"This isn't just a mess that we have to mop up," he said. "People are watching their livelihoods wash up on the beach, parents are worried about the implications for their children's health. Every resident of this community has watched this nightmare threaten the dreams that they've worked so hard to build. And they want it made right and they want to make it right now."

Obama left Friday morning from Chicago, where he is spending the Memorial Day weekend with his family, and arrived in humid New Orleans before noon.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is overseeing response operations in the Gulf, greeted him. The two then flew by helicopter to Port Fourchon on Louisiana's southeastern coast to examine beaches now spotted with oil.

Under a clear sky, Obama walked with Allen along the white-sand Fourchon beach with sleeves rolled up, a glassy ocean lapping gently against the shore.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company