WASHINGTON, May 28, 2010 -- President Obama toured the Gulf Coast today amid rising frustration and complaints that the federal government has responded too slowly and put too little pressure on BP to stop a month-long oil spill.
Outlining the work his administration has done since a rig explosion triggered the spill last month, the president sought to reassure residents while warning them to expect a lengthy cleanup.
"This is something that has to be dealt with immediately," the president said in Grand Isle, Louisiana. "This is our highest priority and it deserves a response that is equal to the task."
BP has launched an unusual procedure called "top kill," which entails putting mud on the leak to stop the oil from flowing up. Obama administration officials expressed confidence earlier today that the process is working, but warned that the next few days will be critical in determining its full success.
"If it is successful, it would obviously be welcome news," the president said. "If it's not, a team of the world's top scientists... has for some time been exploring any and all reasonable contingency plans. ... Our response will continue with its full force regardless of the outcome of the 'top kill' approach."
The president said the government is taking steps to triple the manpower in areas where oil has already hit the shore or is expected in the next day, deploy more booms, clean effected beaches and monitor wildlife and the sea coast system. Obama also said he has asked BP to pay economic injury claims, and "we will make sure they deliver."
The president held the company financially responsible, but said he, as the country's chief executive, is ultimately responsible for solving the crisis.
"I am the president and the buck stops with me," he said.
This was Obama's second trip to the region since BP's offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20. White House officials said the purpose of the trip was for the president to meet with local officials and other individuals at the scene and hear their ideas for containing the oil spill.
Obama arrived in Louisiana this morning and surveyed several parishes. He received briefings from state lawmakers, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Several state officials have blasted the federal government for what they say has been an inadequate response.
"The federal response to protect our marshes is a failure," Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, who met with Obama today, said in a statement earlier. "Just look at their response to our emergency dredging barrier island plan -- weeks of foot-dragging before approving 2 percent of it so they can study it further over more precious weeks and months. I don't think President Obama should leave Louisiana to go on vacation until this failed federal response is clearly turned around."
Vitter was referring to the president's plan to visit Chicago with his family over Memorial Day weekend.
Even some Democrats from the region have said too little is being done to contain the worst ecological disaster caused by an oil spill in U.S. history.
"Everything that I know and love is at risk," an emotional Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Louisiana, said Thursday. "Even though this marsh lies along coastal Louisiana, these are America's wetlands."
In some areas that Obama visited today, visitors held up signs such as "Clean up the Gulf," "I'd Rather be Fishing," and "Help Us Obama."
The president today sought to reassure residents and urged patience. He also defended the administration's moves and called for unity on solving the crisis.
"Not every judgment we make is going to be right the first time out," Obama said. "There are going to be disagreements... There are not going to be silver bullets."
The spilling crude oil has destroyed sea life and wildlife and has been designated the worst oil spill in U.S. history, based on new estimates of the oil flow released Thursday by a government task force. Scientists say the mile-deep well has been spewing between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels of oil a day, an estimate far worse than previously estimates.
Meanwhile, another huge underwater plume has been found south of Mobile, Alabama. Marine scientists say it may be 20 miles long and several miles wide.
The Obama administration says the next 12 to 18 hours will be critical in examining whether BP can sustain this effort to stop the oil from gushing into the ocean.
"They've demonstrated they can do something that actually has never been done before, that's actually apply this mud 5,000 feet below the surface," Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is overseeing the Obama administration's response to last month's oil spill, said on "Good Morning America" today. "The challenge will be to get enough down there to overwhelm the pressure that's pushing the oil up."
BP CEO Tony Hayward said on "GMA" today that BP has also been pumping rubber and other material into the well in a process known as "junk shot," and that they will continue to pump more mud today.
"The operation is continuing, it's going pretty well, according to plan," Hayward said. "As everyone appreciates, this has never been done in 5,000 feet of seawater, so we've proven the technology, and we are learning about how to optimize the technology."
But Hayward added it won't be until Sunday "before we can have confidence that we've succeeded."
The "top kill" procedure, which is being shown on a live video feed to the public, is the best shot at stopping the spill, BP officials have said.
The engineers behind the effort to plug the oil leak were worried that too much of the drill mud was pouring out, so they stopped piping it down unexpectedly early Thursday morning to the broken blowout preventer 5,000 feet below sea level.
Technicians turned the pumps back on Thursday evening and resumed the process of trying to jam the leaking well on the sea floor. Through the night, a 30,000-horsepower engine shot drill mud down two narrow tubes in an effort to stop the leaking oil once and for all.
If the drill mud can plug the leaking well, engineers will then cap it with cement.
An Emotional State on the Gulf Coast
Fishermen in the region are apparently getting sick because of the tainted waters. At least seven fishermen working to clean the spill for BP were hospitalized Wednesday and dozens of others have complained of similar symptoms after inhaling the noxious fumes: nausea, headaches, and dizziness.
"I'm mad as hell. I want everyone to know that. If they [the federal government] want a bigger role they can do that," fisherman A.C. Cooper told ABC News.
Allen said the government hired local fishermen to help with the cleanup and also to provide them with job opportunities. He said toxicologists are looking at what might be behind the fishermen's sickness, including food sources. But environmentalists say more needs to be done in ensuring the health of local fishermen.
Obama held a nearly hour-long news conference Thursday to announce that planned oil exploration in the Gulf coast and off the Atlantic Coast will be cancelled and a six-month moratorium will be placed on new, deepwater drilling permits.
The president also pushed back against critics who say the federal government didn't act quickly enough.
"Those who think that we were either slow on our response or lacked urgency don't know the facts," Obama said. "This has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred."
At the same time, he also took responsibility, saying the federal government is in charge of containing the oil spill, not BP.
"I take responsibility," he said."It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down."
A USA Today/Gallup poll released Thursday showed that 6 in 10 Americans say the government is doing a "poor" job on the oil spill.
ABC News' Matt Gutman, Jeffrey Kofman, Jake Tapper and Karen Travers contributed to this report.