Sunbathers Outnumbered On Florida's Emerald Coast

President Obama returns to the Gulf Coast Monday for the fourth time since the oil spill. He'll tour Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. When he gets to the vacation paradise of the Emerald Coast in Florida's panhandle, it's likely Obama will get an earful. One county commissioner says cleanup crews outnumber sunbathers.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos, in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The Gulf oil spill is sloshing on beaches and covering birds, and President Obama is struggling to make certain that at least it doesn't cover him.

AMOS: This week, the president is working to show that the government is on top of the disaster. He plans a nationwide television address tomorrow evening.

INSKEEP: Later this week, he meets BP's top executive.

AMOS: And today, he starts a visit to the Gulf.

NPR's Debbie Elliott begins our coverage.

(Soundbite of waves)

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Emerald green waves gently lap the shore on Perdido Key, Florida, a barrier island west of Pensacola.

Commissioner GENE VALENTINO (Escambia County, Florida): It's the last bastion of Caribbean on American soil.

ELLIOTT: Gene Valentino is the local county commissioner. By June, this sugar-sand beach should be packed with vacationers, but now clean-up crews outnumber sunbathers, a disturbing sight for Valentino.

Commissioner VALENTINO: Oh, I can see maybe a dozen to two dozen employed workers in their iridescent reflective gear combing the beach to clean up.

ELLIOTT: Two dozen workers collecting tar balls, but only one beach umbrella. Valentino points to oil sheen on the water surface just offshore and says a few miles out, there's a thicker plume on the way, oil that federal officials did not warn local leaders was here.

Commissioner VALENTINO: Hey, guys?

ELLIOTT: He can't even get the cleanup crews to tell him what they found. Valentino is furious about the lack of communication and that more wasn't done to stop the oil from reaching Florida's shore.

Commissioner VALENTINO: I don't mind sitting back and being a team player, but if you don't have a plan, get the hell out of the way.

ELLIOTT: Valentino hopes that when the president sees the growing footprint of the oil spill this week, he'll respond with a greater sense of urgency.

Commissioner VALENTINO: He has his opportunity to mobilize the assets of this nation to prevent this crisis from getting worse.

ELLIOTT: An editorial in the Mobile Press Register today urges: We're counting on you, Mr. President. Make it right.

Yesterday, the White House said when the president meets with BP's CEO Tony Hayward for the first time later this week, he'll demand that the company set up a compensation fund for the Gulf Coast - that after weeks of complaints that the claims process is fraught with delays and needless red tape.

Republican Senator George LeMieux of Florida says the administration's response is too reactionary.

Senator GEORGE LEMIEUX (Republican, Florida): It's been over 50 days that we've had this emergency. I had Lamar McKay and Tony Hayward in my office within a week of this happening. The president of the United States has not spoken to either one of them. He says he wanted to kick some butt, but he hasn't even talk to the people whose butt he should be kicking. So I don't know what that's all about. He needs to be more engaged.

ELLIOTT: In an op-ed that ran in Gulf Coast newspapers over the weekend, the president said the administration was doing everything in its power to, quote, "repel this assault." But it wasn't until Friday that the Coast Guard gave BP 48 hours to come up with a better plan to collect the leaking oil.

Perdido Key residents Debbie Waters and Sue Knapp say more should be done.

Ms. DEBBIE WATERS (Property manager): I'm devastated. I mean, there's not a person on this island that doesn't cry at least once a day. It's horrible. And...

Ms. SUE KNAPP (Retired Teacher): And they what's coming. We can see in Louisiana what's coming, and they're not doing anything now to stop it.

ELLIOTT: The women don't have high hopes for the president's visit.

Retired teacher, Sue Knapp.

Ms. KNAPP: He went to Louisiana, and look at the mess they have.

ELLIOTT: Waters, a property manager, is even more cynical.

Ms. WATERS: To me, it's a media ploy. And I don't blame the president, but I do think that our government lacks the initiative to protect citizens in circumstances like this. I feel like they've totally let us down.

ELLIOTT: Others, like Alison Davenport with the Perdido Key Chamber of Commerce, are concerned the president's trip could do more harm than good, because the oil isn't blanketing every inch of coastline.

Ms. ALISON DAVENPORT (Perdido Chamber of Commerce): If he stands over one isolated area of destruction and that becomes the picture of who we are, it will only add to our misery.

ELLIOTT: Misery, compounded by the same kind of image problem that President Obama is looking to overcome with his fourth trip to the imperiled Gulf Coast.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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