Obama sees 'massive, potentially unprecedented' Gulf oil disaster

VENICE, La. -- President Barack Obama met with officials here as a massive oil spill resulting from an offshore rig explosion continued to make its way toward landfall.

Promising to "do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to stop this crisis," he sought to defend administration action thus far, saying the federal response had been quick and thorough.

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Administration officials are eager to avoid comparisons with President George W. Bush, whose standing was severely damaged by criticism that his response to Hurricane Katrina was inadequate.

"From Day One, we have planned and prepared for the worst even as we hoped for the best," Obama said, as a biting rain and wind fell on the Coast Guard equipment surrounding the president near the Mississippi River.

As he spoke, Obama said that the oil -- a slick roughly the size of Puerto Rico, according to reports -- was still nine miles away from the coastline, defying expectations that it would reach landfall by Friday afternoon, but still creating conditions that the president called "massive and potentially unprecedented."

While meeting with Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the commandant of the Coast Guard put in charge of the efforts in the Gulf by Obama, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and others, Obama was heard to ask about the impact on shipping lanes as he studied a large map of the affected area.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said later that Obama and officials discussed well-capping procedures, the economic implications of the spill and the environmental impact to the marsh.

Gibbs also said that Jindal thanked the president for coming to the Gulf personally.


Obama stopped and spoke with local fishermen after meeting with Coast Guard and administration officials, noting that the disaster could "jeopardize the livelihoods of thousands of Americans who call this place home."

Obama again stressed that British Petroleum is ultimately responsible for the cost of the cleanup.

"Let me be clear, BP is responsible for this leak," Obama said. "BP will be paying the bill."

Both BP and government officials are struggling to cap the well and contain the leaks while at the same time protect the coasts and investigate the cause of the disaster.

Obama said officials are trying their best, but "because this leak is unique and unprecedented, it could take many days to stop."

Allen told the group of fishermen that BP is saying they might be able to put the experimental funnel or dome in place by May 9.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that the same technique was used after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita but at much shallower depths than the current leak.


The White House has repeatedly dismissed any comparisons to Bush's response to Katrina, and Gibbs said Sunday on the flight back that he could not fathom how the two tragedies could be compared.

Gibbs did, however, jab at the Bush administration, saying he is "happy to compare the response" to the two incidents.

Gibbs said Obama got a "firsthand view of the recovery efforts" when he flew by helicopter to observe boats, volunteers and officials mobilizing in anticipation of landfall.

"The president thinks it was a worthwhile trip," Gibbs said.