Special Reports

Obama urges Gulf vacations

GULFPORT, Miss. — President Barack Obama promised to scour the world to find more oil skimming boats, force BP to quickly and fully compensate people hurt by the Gulf of Mexico disaster and used his bully pulpit Monday to urge vacationers to come down and enjoy the Mississippi Coast.

“This is something that’s been repeatedly emphasized here in Mississippi — but it’s true in Florida, it’s true in Alabama and it’s true in portions of Louisiana — there’s still a lot of opportunity for visitors to come down here, a lot of beaches that are not yet affected or will not be affected,” Obama told reporters after a meeting with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and other state, federal and local leaders at Coast Guard Station Gulfport.

“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 they can do to help folks down here, one of the best ways to help is to come down here and enjoy the outstanding hospitality.” Obama, on his first trip to Mississippi since he was elected, said he was on a fact-gathering mission before he meets with top BP officials Wednesday.

After the meeting at the Coast Guard station, Obama traveled to the Ken Combs Pier in Gulfport, where he dined on seafood dishes from the Chimneys restaurant, had a snow cone and talked to a few local business owners. After his Gulfport visit, he traveled to Alabama on Monday and plans to be in Florida today.

Barbour said he and other leaders emphasized the need for more oil skimmer boats, to help fight the oil out in the Gulf, before it reaches shorelines. Of the more than 5,100 vessels currently working on the oil disaster, only about 240 are oil skimmers, according to the Coast Guard.

“We have been in touch with Italy, France, the Netherlands, all over, looking for more skimmers,” Barbour said. “(Obama) assured us that they would waive whatever federal laws they need to waive to allow these vessels to operate here ... Everyone agrees we need more skimming capacity.”

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said: “There has not been enough skimming, and the president acknowledged that there has been a bottleneck on getting more vessels. I think we made progress on that today. There are skimmers available in Mexico, and the president assured us they are looking at getting some Scandinavian skimmers over ... This was a good meeting today, and a substantive meeting, a lot more than just a photo op.”

Obama promised improvement on “a range of issues having to do with communications” on the oil disaster response, something Coast leaders have said is a problem. Among other issues, Obama and local leaders noted, many of the Gulf shrimping and fishing boats BP has hired have antiquated radios that can’t communicate with the disaster command, or no radios at all.

The president said “there are still problems” with BP’s compensating people whose businesses are being hurt by the oil disaster or loss of tourism, and he plans to discuss this with BP’s chairman Wednesday.

“And so we are 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 in a prompt manner,” Obama said.

Harrison County Supervisor William Martin said he made the point during the meeting that “we can’t be waiting and waiting until we get approval from BP” on getting and installing oil-filtering boom and fencing to protect delicate marsh areas.

“And by approval, I mean funding,” said Martin, who said he thought the meeting went well, and that Obama also plans to address problems with local people who have filed claims for compensation with BP.

“BP’s been showing paperwork that they haven’t been denying claims,” Martin said. “Well, when they let it sit there for two months, they may not have denied it, but they haven’t paid it, either. Gov. Jindal said that what they’d experienced in Louisiana was that nobody with claims over $5,000 was getting anything except those who put very heavy pressure on.”

Obama met with the owners of the Blowfly Inn restaurant, a Coast seafood favorite, and the Edgewater Inn, one of few mom-and-pop beach hotels left on the Coast after Katrina. He also met with Richard Gollott, owner of Gulf Coast Packing Co. seafood processor.

“It went well, and I think he was interested in what we had to say,” said Blowfly Inn owner Scott Weinberg. “The lack of tourism, combined with the increased cost for shrimp and oysters and crabmeat — we’re catching both sides of the sword ... I hope he can help get the word out — that was my industry specific message to him — that our seafood is safe, our beaches are open and we are not going to serve unsafe seafood.”

Weinberg noted happily that, during lunch on the pier, “the president did eat the shrimp.” Obama and Barbour got snow cones from Cindy’s Sno De-Lites on the beach, both ordering lemon-lime. “That’s another thing we agree on,” Barbour said.

Those meeting with Obama also included U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss.; Gulfport Mayor George Schloegel, Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway and state Attorney General Jim Hood.

Barbour and Wicker said they both urged Obama to lift the moratorium on drilling. But Obama at one point in his Gulfport travels indicated he still wants to see more safety technology in place first.

“The technology they’re using — dispersant, boom, skimming devices — they really haven’t developed anything in 40 years,” Obama said.

Barbour said he also urged Obama to try to expedite a federal change that will allow states to receive more royalties from offshore drilling in federal waters, slated to start in 2017. He said this money could be used by states to be better prepared for oil spills, “investing, stockpiling, like we do for hurricanes,” Barbour said.

Barbour was asked by a national press reporter why he thinks Mississippi has been lucky so far, with minimal oil intrusion, even compared to Alabama and Florida, further from the disaster site.

“We pray a lot,” Barbour said. “And the good Lord said let the currents flow and the winds blow ... by God’s grace.”

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