SCOTT SIMON, host:
That massive oil slick is continuing to foul Louisiana's fragile coastal ecosystem. More than 200,000 gallons of crude oil a day are spewing unchecked from a deep water well that exploded and sank. President Obama will tour the area tomorrow. NPR's Debbie Elliott has the latest.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was among the Obama administration officials who traveled to Louisiana yesterday to assure residents the government was doing all it could.
Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (Department of Homeland Security): The response is strong. It's coordinated and it is designed to minimize the harm to our coastal lands. And that to the extent there is harm, there is swift and effective cleanup.
ELLIOTT: But there's growing frustration over BP's inability to stop the flow and keep the oil slick away from land. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said containment booms designed to be a protective barrier have not been effective and strong winds and rough seas have prevented skimming and burning operations designed to reduce the size of the slick.
(Soundbite of seagulls)
ELLIOTT: On Dauphin Island south of Mobile, Alabama, work boats towed strands of bright orange barriers to sensitive marshes.
Dr. GEORGE CROZIER (Director, Dauphin Island Sea Lab): This is what I'm worried about right here.
ELLIOTT: Dr. George Crozier is director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. He's standing on a boardwalk overlooking a marsh he describes as a nursery.
Mr. CROZIER: Shrimp, oysters, crab, flounder, even red snapper larvae have been found in here. And almost everything that we value comes in here as a baby. A lot of life in it now. And there's birds and pelicans flying around and it's open to the Mobile Bay.
ELLIOTT: Mobile Bay is in the heart of the Gulf's Fertile Crescent, an area stretching from Texas to the Florida Panhandle, where an estimated 90 percent of the Gulf's seafood is produced. Nutrients from the Mississippi and Mobile deltas create rich estuaries. And now Crozier says that productive system is at risk and no one really knows how it will respond to the oil.
Mr. CROZIER: We could be about to watch something happen that's, first of all, completely man-made that the natural system hasn't ever seen before. You know, how long is it - and it will come back to an equilibrium.
ELLIOTT: The question is when, and what will it look like. To that end the Sea Lab is collecting samples from the Gulf and its estuaries as the crisis unfolds to track the impact.
Mr. CROZIER: The better we understand what happens, the better we may be able a year from now to project where we're going to go; how is the eco system going to re-equilibrate to this new world? And we may in five years be able to say it is never going back to what it was in 2009 or 2010. This is a new world.
(Soundbite of birds)
ELLIOTT: That uncertainty is unsettling for Paul Nelson, a commercial fisherman in Coden, Alabama, and member of the South Bay's Community Alliance. He's looking out over Portersville Bay, where his family has been making a living for generations.
Mr. PAUL NELSON (Commercial Fisherman): I see something that can't be replaced. I see something there that we sure dont need destroyed, that's for sure.
ELLIOTT: He lost his shrimping boats and his family's oyster business in Hurricane Katrina.
Mr. NELSON: And now with this, this is going to set us back in what's(ph) our way of life. If this does what we as commercial fisherman look at and think it can do, it can destroy us for the next 50 years.
ELLIOTT: Alliance member Nancy McCall says she learned to swim and find food in these waters.
Ms. NANCY MCCALL (Community Alliance Member): Our uncles and dads would throw nets and pull fish up, and then we had the frying pan and the wash pot and then clean them and cook them there. Yeah. This is what brought my grandparents here, is this bay out here. They came here from picking cotton from Waynesboro, Mississippi.
ELLIOTT: McCall says she never thought of living anywhere else but now wonders whether the community can survive what's coming.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama.