Arriving in Louisiana Friday to counter increasing criticism of his handling of the BP oil rig disaster, President Obama will find few allies and low expectations in a region still stinging from the government's botched response to hurricane Katrina.
Mr. Obama, responding to criticism that his administration was too slow to act on the Deepwater Horizon disaster, declared at a White House press conference on Thursday that “the federal government is fully engaged, and I’m fully engaged.” Asserting that his administration was in charge of BP’s efforts to cap the gushing oil well and contain the spill, the president added that he should have pushed BP executives earlier to provide images of the leak and accurate measurements of the spill's size.
BP executives said for weeks that about 5,000 barrels of oil a day were gushing from the blown wellhead a mile below the Gulf of Mexico’s surface. Independent scientists estimated the spill at possibly more than 10 times that amount. The US Geological Survey reported Thursday that oil is leaking at two to four times the rate of BP's original figure. Under that scenario, the spill, which began drifting onto Louisiana beaches and wetlands last week, has surpassed the amount of oil dumped into Alaska's Prince William Sound by the Exxon Valdez in 1989 and threatens a huge swath of the Gulf Coast.
On Thursday, the president’s critics in Louisiana ranged from long-time Democratic strategist James Carville – a New Orleans resident who railed against what he called the administration’s lagging response – to oil industry veterans who lambasted Obama’s decision to extend a moratorium on drilling permits for six months and suspend planned exploration drilling on 33 wells currently operating in the Gulf.
In Washington, Rep. Charlie Melancon (D) of Louisiana excused himself from a House Energy subcommittee hearing Thursday after breaking down while explaining the crisis facing the region he represents. “Having flown over this disaster, I can tell you it greater than anyone can ever imagine,” said Representative Melancon, who represents six coastal parishes most threatened by the spill. “My constituents are watching a slow-motion tragedy unfold in front of them. Our culture is threatened, our coastal economy is threatened, and everything I know and love is at risk.”
In St. Tammany Parish, parish President Kevin Davis complains that BP maps are not accurately showing the location of giant oil slicks in the Gulf that are threatening Lake Pontchartrain, which abuts New Orleans. Mr. Davis says oil washed ashore on uninhabited Brush Island four days ago, 20 miles closer to Lake Pontchartrain than official maps currently indicate.
“It doesn’t show up on the new maps and we don’t understand why,” says Davis, who estimated that oil could be at the entrance of the lake as soon as next week.
Davis, who says he did not have time to watch the president’s press conference on Thursday, says he had no expectations about Obama’s visit, but one request: “I hope he will sign the permits we need to dredge barrier islands to help keep the oil out as soon as possible. If the oil gets in here, it will kill everything. We have the choice of dredging and dealing with whatever problems that might cause later on, or losing everything right now.”
Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has pressed the administration to approve his plan to dredge a series of temporary sand berms along a 100-mile stretch of Louisiana’s coast to help keep the oil spill out of inland waters. On Thursday, the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard approved building six segments over 40 miles of coastline. Coastal geologists have criticized the plan as an unrealistic defense that could cause more problems with erosion along the state’s threatened coastline.
In an informal poll conducted by a New Orleans radio station Thursday, 70 percent of respondents rated the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis as poor.
In Venice, La., where hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005, assistant manager Stephanie Cubbage stood outside with other employees of the Light House Motel to watch as Obama’s motorcade passed on his previous trip to Plaquemines Parish on May 2. She doesn’t have high hopes for the president’s second visit.
“He hasn’t done anything for us, and I don’t expect him to do anything,” Ms. Cubbage said Thursday. “We feel like they forgot about us and everyone is pointing the finger at everybody else. They been lying to us from Day 1.”
A conservative state, Louisiana gave Obama less than 40 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential election. With the spill crisis, the president seems to find himself in a no-win situation across the state’s political spectrum.
“Everyone has been disappointed in the response of BP and the federal government,” says Matt Petersen, CEO of Global Green Initiative, an environmental group in New Orleans focused on green energy. “We need regulation and to end the too-cozy relationship between government and the oil industry. I was surprised by the president’s half-measure of putting offshore drilling on hold, when it seems like we really need a moratorium until this industry is truly safe.”
“I think the oil shouldn’t be in the marshes at all, and I think the federal government should have stepped in at the beginning,” says Ms. Gonsoulin, who has traveled to coastal Venice and Grand Isle since the spill to see the response firsthand. “I think Obama dropped the ball. I expected him to be more proactive. But I think closing down the rigs offshore is only putting more of a burden on the people of Louisiana. Now all those people are out of work, too.”