OFFSHORE DRILLING:

Gulf Coast residents send SOS to Obama

VENICE, La. -- Gulf Coast residents in this small fishing town welcomed President Obama's first appearance in the region yesterday following the massive oil spill, but many expressed frustration that the cleanup efforts have moved too slowly.

Obama traveled yesterday afternoon to the coastal community, where he met with top officials to gauge the scope of the disaster caused by oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded on April 20.

As his motorcade traveled the two hours from New Orleans to the outer reaches of Louisiana's southeastern coast, groups of residents greeted him enthusiastically along the way. Obama also passed signs calling for urgent assistance. One roadside sign said, "Obama Send Help!!!!" Another urged, "Please Save Our Coast."

Speaking to reporters outside the Venice Coast Guard Center, Obama called the spill a "massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster," adding that the oil still leaking from the well could seriously damage the Gulf states' economy and environment.

The oil is now covering about 3,500 square miles of ocean surface area and an estimated 200,000 gallons of crude are spewing into the gulf each day, although officials have said that estimate is difficult to quantify. Rough weather over the weekend hampered efforts to keep the oil from hitting the shoreline by skimming and using chemical dispersants that cause the oil to sink.

"I've heard already that people are, understandably, frustrated and frightened, especially because the people of this region have been through worse disasters than anybody should have to bear," Obama said.

Obama sought to reassure the residents of a region trampled by Hurricane Katrina and other environmental disasters in recent years, insisting that the government will do "whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to stop this crisis."

But for some coastal residents who fear the loss of their livelihood, Obama's pledges are not enough, and they are waiting to see further evidence that BP and the government are cleaning up the spill.

"Showing up with a big brigade isn't enough," said Noel Buol, a New Orleans resident who works part time in Venice as a charter fisherman. "They gotta get something done."

Buol and the many others in the area who rely on the fishing industry have already felt the effects of the oil spill after Louisiana shut down fishing east of the Mississippi River last week. The federal government yesterday announced the closure of the federal waters off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and part of Florida.

Some residents saw Obama's arrival as an attempt to make up for what they saw as a botched recovery effort after Hurricane Katrina.

"We haven't had as much help as we had hoped for down here," said Ciji Parker, 23, of Port Sulphur, La. Parker and her mother, 45-year-old Errica Ingraham were among those who gathered in Venice yesterday to see Obama. Their family was forced to evacuate their home in Port Sulphur, just north of Venice, when Katrina hit.

"We kind of got shorthanded," Parker said. "For them to come down here, I think they're trying to make up for that."

Parker and Ingraham waited near the side of the road yesterday for Obama to pass by and said they were supporters of the president. Still, they urged the government to move more quickly to step up federal cleanup efforts.

"Him coming down here is a step, but there's a lot more that needs to be done," Parker said.

Craig Taffaro, president of St. Bernard Parish on Louisiana's northeastern coast, said yesterday that the president will need to go further than pay a visit to the region.

"Certainly we welcome him to the region and we welcome him and seek his support," Taffaro told reporters yesterday morning. "But a visitation -- as we have seen in Katrina -- a visitation doesn't necessarily mean anything unless the support behind that visitation happens and happens quickly."

Still, some residents were less angry about the pace of cleanup efforts. Austin Williams, 52, a local welder, called Obama a man with a lot on his shoulders. "To me he reminds me of God," Williams said, because everyone goes to him for answers. "I think he's doing a fine job."

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