THEODORE, Ala. -- In a newly optimistic tone, President Barack Obama promised Monday that "things are going to return to normal" along the stricken Gulf Coast and the region's fouled waters will be in better shape than before the catastrophic BP oil spill.
He declared Gulf seafood safe to eat and said his administration was redoubling inspections and monitoring to make sure it stays that way. And his White House said Monday it had wrested apparent agreement from BP PLC to set up an independent, multibillion-dollar compensation fund for people and businesses suffering from the spill's effects.
Obama said the goal was to pay legitimate claims "justly, fairly, promptly."
With Obama hoping to convince a frightened Gulf Coast and a skeptical nation that he is in command, he is marshaling the tools at a president's disposal: a two-day visit via Air Force One, helicopter and boat in the stricken region, a prime-time speech Tuesday night from the symbolically important stage of the Oval Office and a face-to-face White House confrontation Wednesday with the executives of the oil company that leased the rig that exploded April 20 and led to the leak of millions of gallons of coast-devastating crude.
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From an enormous waterside staging facility here, one of 17 across Gulf Coast where cleanup crews ready themselves and equipment to attack the spill, Obama mixed warnings that the recovery could take a while with unqualified optimism about the ultimate result.
"I can't promise folks here in Theodore or across the Gulf Coast that the oil will be cleaned up overnight. It will not be," he said, after encouraging hard-hatted workers as they hosed off and repaired oil-blocking boom. "It's going to be painful for a lot of folks."
But, he said, "things are going to return to normal. ... I am confident that we're going to be able to leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before."
That pledge was reminiscent of George W. Bush's promise to rebuild the region "even better and stronger" than before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Bush could not make good on that promise, and Obama did not spell out how he would fulfill his.
Earlier in Gulfport, Miss., Obama pledged to make sure BP compensated those affected by the Gulf of Mexico spill and made a pitch for Mississippi's tourism industry during the first leg of his coastal tour.
Obama also was to visit Florida.
Gov. Haley Barbour and his wife, Marsha, greeted the president in Gulfport. They then all headed to the U.S. Coast Guard station in Gulfport for an hourlong meeting with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and other local government and business leaders.
Gulfport Mayor George Schloegel, a Republican, said he's satisfied with the oil spill response by the Obama administration and BP PLC. BP operated the drilling rig that exploded and sank nearly two months ago and is responsible for cleaning up the spill.
Schloegel said he participates in daily calls the White House has with local officials in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
"That is what I call responsive," Schloegel said on his way into the Coast Guard center.
Kendra Auxier, 60, who lives in Madison, Ind., and has a second home in Pass Christian, Miss., sat on a wooden platform near the Gulfport Coast Guard station.
Auxier said she supports the president and worries about the problems the country faces, from unemployment to the wars overseas. Auxier, who's retired, said she worries about the long-term impact of the oil spill.
"I'm not concerned about myself," Auxier said. "I think we're looking at something that could possibly change our country as we know it. It's a calamity. It's a nightmare."
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said after the meeting with Obama that local officials told the president some local boat owners hired by BP need two-way radios or other equipment to communicate with one another and with planes or helicopters flying over the Gulf to spot oil.
The local boats are being used to deploy oil-absorbing boom, but Hood said some have told him they don't know where to go because they can't communicate with others.
"I know it was helpful for the president," Hood said. "He listened and he summed it up quickly, what they had said."
Obama said he was gathering information while on the Gulf Coast before meeting with BP officials on Wednesday. He said he plans to "make sure people in Mississippi and elsewhere are adequately compensated for their damages and losses."
"We're gathering up facts, stories, right now so that we have an absolutely clear understanding about how we can best present to BP the need to make sure that individuals and businesses are dealt with in a fair manner and a prompt manner," the president said.
Obama also made a pitch for Gulf Coast tourism, again emphasizing that there are still plenty of places for people to visit that haven't been affected by the spill.
"And we just want to make sure that people who have travel plans down to the Gulf area remain mindful of that, because if people want to know what can they do to help folks down here, one of the best ways to help is to come down here and enjoy the outstanding hospitality," Obama said.
Meanwhile, as the White House pressured oil giant BP to step up its response to the Deepwater Horizon spill, including faster payment of damage claims and more aggressive plans to contain the crude gushing undersea, the federal government’s point man on the crisis said he still doesn’t know how much oil is spewing from the broken well.
Obama administration officials speaking on Sunday morning political shows delivered some tough talk to BP in advance of the president’s scheduled address to the nation Tuesday following a two-day tour of the Gulf Coast region.
Obama also is scheduled to meet with BP executives at the White House on Wednesday, when the administration is expected to press the oil giant to set aside billions of dollars to pay individuals and businesses damaged by the massive spill — and that those monies be paid out in a transparent manner by an independent third party.
“We’ve been very concerned about the claims process,” U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, the government’s point man on the response, said CBS’s Face The Nation. “It’s not clear to us that there’s transparency.”
Another murky issue is the amount of oil gushing daily from the deep-sea well, which is about one mile below the surface of the Gulf.
Scientists still are uncertain about the amount of oil 55 days after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, killing 11 people and triggering the worst spill in the nation’s history.
Allen said the government would deploy two robots to the bottom of the Gulf on Sunday to seek more data on the spill.
The government also will try to reach an accurate measure of the oilspill by “taking overhead satellite imagery of oil on water to using very high resolution video to assessing velocity of flow,” he said.
Earlier estimates of the spill, which ranged from 5,000 to 19,000 barrels daily, “were never BP’s figures,” Allen said. “They were our figures,” provided by a technical group led by the U.S. Geological Survey.
The team’s latest estimates of the spill have ranged from 20,000 to 40,000 barrels daily.
BP reported Sunday a containment dome lowered over the broken well’s blowout preventer had collected about 7,400 barrels of oil in the 12 hours before midnight. Total oil collected since the cap was deployed June 4 is about 120,000 barrels.
Allen said the true measure of oil spilled will not be known until August, when BP expects to cap the well. He expects clean-up of oil on the surface and possibly the Gulf
Coast shores to continue well into the fall.
Over the weekend, oil was reported coming ashore at Horn Island off the Mississippi coast and along the Alabama shoreline, near Orange Beach, among other locations.
Using the government’s newest, albeit still to be revised, estimates, nearly 90 million gallons have spilled into the Gulf since the BP rig exploded and sank.
The government has repeatedly said BP is liable for the cleanup costs, and Allen said there was little concern at the moment about BP’s being driven to bankruptcy by demands from the federal government, Gulf Coast states and individuals.
“They’re a company that has a lot of wealth inside it,” Allen said. “I don’t think that’s a consideration.”
BP is expected to respond by Sunday night to a June 11 letter from U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson demanding a more aggressive effort to contain the oil spill. BP’s board of directors also is scheduled to meet today and is expected to discuss deferring second-quarter dividend payments to share holders and setting aside money to pay for oil spill claims.
Among the claims so far are two by Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy, who have asked BP to set aside $7.5 billion in escrow accounts to pay claims from the states and their residents for present and future damages.
In advance of Obama’s visit to the region today, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said he welcomed the attention because it leads to quicker action and more assets to fight the spill.
“That kind of focus only helps all of us,” he said, speaking from a Florida beach.
Crist emphasized that no state beaches have closed due to the spill, and said he has requested more skimming boats from the Coast Guard.
He estimated oil from the spill was three to four miles off the coast of Pensacola Beach.
Still, on Sunday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission closed about 23 miles of coastline in the panhandle’s Escambia County to fishing, crabbing and shrimping — because oil was present several miles off shore.
Also, a plume of weathered oil about two miles wide and 40 miles long was detected nine miles south of Pensacola Pass, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
A second plume of non-weathered oil, verified through state reconnaissance data, was identified three miles south of Pensacola Pass, the entryway to the Inter-Coastal Waterway.
A sheen of oil, described as a long ribbon, came in to Pensacola Pass early Sunday morning and skimmers were quickly deployed, said Brandi Thompson, an Escambia County spokeswoman.
Also, two barges collecting oil Saturday night in Perdido Pass collided, resulting in a small fire but no injuries.
Over the weekend, a Miami Herald reporter aboard a boat witnessed large ribbons and patches of oil off Pensacola.
About two miles off shore from Perdido Key, there were large looping fields of orange and brown dispersed oil with thicker tar balls and patties floating in them.
Boats were working around the clock to skim oil and pull tarballs from the waters.
About three and a half miles south of Perdido Key, a ring of six boats, with crews in full-body, yellow and white HAZMAT suits, pulled oily gunk from the water.
A white absorbent boom, soaked with thick brown crude, stretched about 120 feet from one fishing boat to another.
On another boat, two men pulled heavy pom poms covered in thick oil onto the boats, placing them in large plastic bags.
Yet the threat of oil looming offshore did not seem to deter beachgoers, many of whom frolicked in the waters off the white-sand beaches.
In Destin and Fort Walton Beach, tourists continued to pack beaches. Despite dime-sized tar ball sightings on the beach, many hotels along U.S. Highway 98 reported being sold out or close to it.
“You try not to think too much about what’s going on out there in the ocean,” said Jim Turino, 54, as he lounged on a beach chair at Beasley Park on Okaloosa Island, on the outskirts of Destin. “You gotta look up at the sky, and just be happy that there’s sun and it’s not raining.”
Turino said he drove from his hometown near Mobile, Ala., to soak up the sun and surf of some of Destin’s prize winning beaches, hoping it would not be the last of several summer time journeys.
“For a lot of families it’s a routine to drive from Alabama to the Panhandle beaches, it’s not just the people of Florida that are going to feel the impact, but the families in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and who knows where else that consider these beaches part of our own,” Turino said.
For weeks, county officials from Escambia, Santa Rosa, and Okaloosa have raised concerns that they were not receiving answers to their questions quick enough from Unified Command based in Mobile.
As a result, the three counties have partnered to send a representative to the command center to ensure they receive a quicker response to their questions. They will each trade off on sending a county employee every three weeks.
“Having a face on the ground has helped us out,” said Brad Baker, emergency services coordinator for Santa Rosa County. “He’s able to track people down if we have specific questions, or able to give us a run down before we get some of the reports from Unified Command later in the day.”