Obama Encourages Tourists To Return To Gulf Coast

President Obama continues his tour of the Gulf Coast on Tuesday morning. The region is marred by the massive BP oil spill and the damage continues. While in Mississippi on Monday, the president said one of the best ways people can help is to visit the coast and enjoy the outstanding hospitality.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And I'm Deborah Amos, in for Renee Montagne.

Oil from the BP well is washing ashore in four states. President Obama is setting foot in three of them during a two-day trip. And tonight, the oil spill disaster will be the subject of his first-ever prime-time, Oval Office speech.

INSKEEP: This is all part of an effort to show that the White House is on top of the crisis.

In a moment, we'll hear about the administration's call for BP to set up a compensation fund. This would be a fund for people who've taken a financial hit from the oil spill.

We begin with NPR's Ari Shapiro, who's traveling with the president.

ARI SHAPIRO: When Air Force One touched down in Mississippi, Governor Haley Barbour was there to greet the president. Now, Barbour often says the biggest problem facing his coastline right now is not oil; it's fear of oil. Tourists have stopped coming to the beaches. That has not been Mr. Obama's message but yesterday, Barbour nodded vigorously when the president said this.

President BARACK OBAMA: If people want to know, what can they do to help folks down here, one of the best ways to help is to come down here and enjoy the outstanding hospitality.

SHAPIRO: After meeting with local officials at the Coast Guard station in Gulfport, Governor Barbour and President Obama met local business owners for lunch on the beach.

The absence of tourists was evident. They ate on an empty dock surrounded by empty beach in the sweltering heat. A snow cone shack nearby made plenty of sales, but that was mostly to the president's entourage.

There was no sign of oil, but that changed once the president crossed the border.

(Soundbite of machinery)

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

SHAPIRO: We're here in Theodore, Alabama, where workers in yellow rubber suits are using high-pressure water to clean oil-soaked boom. The president is taking a tour of this staging facility. Boom is being brought in, cleaned, redeployed - and here he comes.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

SHAPIRO: The heat index was near 110. With all their heavy gear, workers need to take a 20-minute rest for every 30 minutes of work. In another part of the staging facility, Steven Martin sticks a bright-yellow vinyl patch over a punctured stretch of neon-orange boom that's been brought in from the gulf.

Mr. STEVEN MARTIN: And what we're doing is, we've glued it to the boom to repair a hole in it, and we're also heating it up to the point of fusing the two materials together to form a water- and air-tight patch.

SHAPIRO: He's working with Matt Alexander.

Mr. MATT ALEXANDER: I don't think - the manufacturers aren't manufacturing it fast enough, so they're trying to repair everything that comes in from the gulf that's damaged. Instead of putting new boom, we're repairing the old.

SHAPIRO: This facility repairs 10,000 feet of boom a day. BP contracted the company that hires these workers. When Mr. Obama finished his tour, he spoke to reporters, and he described the spill as though it were a war.

Pres. OBAMA: It's an ongoing assault whose movements are constantly changing. That's what makes this crisis so challenging.

SHAPIRO: He promised success.

Pres. OBAMA: Things are going to return to normal. This region, that's known a lot of hardship, will bounce back - just like it's bounced back before.

SHAPIRO: But that day may be far off, and there are many challenges between now and then. One that came up in the speech was food safety.

Pres. OBAMA: I'm announcing a comprehensive, coordinated and multi-agency initiative to ensure that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is safe to eat.

SHAPIRO: Mr. Obama made a point of eating local seafood on this trip - twice over the course of the day. His last stop in Alabama was at a restaurant called Tacky Jack's.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

SHAPIRO: The atmosphere was festive, and the view was gorgeous from the third-floor deck overlooking the water. The back story is not as happy. People often pull up to Tacky Jack's in their boats. But last week, that practice ended when oil came in on the high tide and officials closed the inshore waterway. The restaurant's famous for its local seafood but this week, the oysters were from Texas.

The presidential motorcade left Orange Beach, Alabama, for Pensacola, Florida. Tommy and Laurie Smith stood on the side of the road with a sign.

Mr. TOMMY SMITH: We'll read it. What it says is: Obama, would you allow a three-month spill on your coastline? We really believe that he's not doing everything necessary to get this fixed.

We're out here every day and today, I have not seen a single BP worker on the beach the entire day. And they say they've got thousands out. Where are they? If it was up at his home in Hawaii, this would not come onshore.

SHAPIRO: President Obama is trying hard to change their minds.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Pensacola.

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