STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
Residents of the Gulf Coast may feel they've seen something like this before. A disaster unfolds over several days and for the moment, experts seem unable to stop it.
Five years ago, that disaster was the flooding after Hurricane Katrina. This year, the disaster is a damaged undersea well still pouring oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
In a moment, we'll visit the Alabama coast, where seafood fishing is disrupted. We start with President Obama, who traveled to the region over the weekend.
Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.
SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama flew over the marshes of Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish, where rich oyster and shrimp beds are jeopardized by the spill.
Oil continues to flow out of control from a wellhead nearly a mile below the surface of the gulf, and Mr. Obama warned it could keep flowing for a long time.
President BARACK OBAMA: I think the American people are now aware, certainly the folks down in the gulf are aware, that we're dealing with a massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster.
HORSLEY: The president said crews are using the most advanced technology to try to stop the leak, but efforts to cap the well have so far been unsuccessful. And the next most likely solution - a kind of funnel that would capture leaking oil and pump it to the surface - is untested at that depth and expected to take another week or so.
In some areas, high winds have kept the oil away from shore. But in general, the weather has not been helpful, either to cleanup crews or the president's photo op.
Rain began to fall just as Mr. Obama stepped to the microphone in front of a shiny, white Coast Guard cutter. It quickly turned into a heavy shower.
Pres. OBAMA: I just want to point out, I was told it was drizzling out here.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Pres. OBAMA: Is this Louisiana drizzle right here?
HORSLEY: Early on, experts made a similar misjudgment about the severity of the oil spill. When the drilling rig, working for BP, exploded 13 days ago, authorities first thought the well had been capped. That's what's designed to happen.
Even when they discovered oil was leaking, they underestimated the amount. Nine days passed before Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared this spill nationally significant. But Napolitano insisted yesterday, on "Meet the Press," the government was at full throttle all along.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Meet the Press")
Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (Department of Homeland Security): The physical response on the ground has been, from day one, as if this could be a catastrophic failure.
HORSLEY: But that response has not prevented the oil from threatening sensitive shoreline not only in Louisiana but Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and beyond.
The government's forced to rely on BP itself for the most important task: trying to control the leaking well.
Yesterday, the government halted fishing in a huge swath of the gulf, from the mouth of the Mississippi River to Pensacola Bay.
In a meeting with Louisianan fishermen, President Obama talked about setting up a process to handle the damage claims against BP that are now inevitable. I don't want to sugarcoat this, the president said.
Pres. OBAMA: I've heard already that people are understandably frustrated and frightened, especially because the people of this region have been through worse disasters than anybody should have to bear. But every American affected by this spill should know this: Your government will do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to stop this crisis.
HORSLEY: The president won some points just by showing up. As his motorcade snaked past oil refineries and seafood stands, supporters stood along the roadside, waving.
A gas station posted a sign saying: Welcome, President Obama. Thanks for coming.
Scott Horsley, NPR News.