x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Obama tries to connect with the islanders of Louisiana

The US president lashes out at BP over its spending on a publicity drive while the human suffering caused by the Gulf of Mexico spill goes on.

GRAND ISLE, LOUISIANA // The US president, Barack Obama, accused of being aloof to the human suffering caused by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, put himself firmly on the side of the people of Louisiana in a weekly address to the nation yesterday. He recorded his address during a visit to Louisiana on Friday, his third trip to the usually neglected state, a record for any American president.

Critics had assailed him for a seemingly intellectual rather than gutsy response to the crisis. His last visit to Grand Isle just last week ended with headlines pointing out that clean-up workers seen on a beach he visited simply disappeared soon after the president had left. This time, Mr Obama seemed to make more of an effort to connect with the people of Grand Isle, a fishing and resort community on the edge of the Mississippi River delta, by sitting down to eat from boxes of seafood with fishermen and small-business owners.

"Here, this spill has not just damaged livelihoods. It's upended whole communities," Mr Obama said in his address. "And the fury people feel is not just about the money they've lost. They've been through tough times before. It's about the wrenching recognition that this time their lives may never be the same." Anger towards BP and the government is particularly palpable in Louisiana, where fishermen have seen around a third of coastal waters closed off to them. Oil has spewed from a well a 1.5km below water at a rate of up to 19,000 barrels a day since April 20.

Opinion polls also show national unhappiness over the crisis, which could extend until August when BP said it hoped to complete the first of two relief wells that would definitively stop the flow of oil. In the meantime, the company was involved in yet another operation to cap and contain at least some of the flow. As the long presidential motorcade swept through Grand Isle, a small crowd of people gathered to catch sight of the president even though many of them did not vote for him. Some people wore T-shirts saying "BP Sucks" while a woman held up a piece of cardboard on which a message was scrawled in maker pen: "Save Our Shrimp".

Mr Obama allowed a rare flash of anger to show when he criticised BP for spending US$50 million (Dh183.5m) on television advertising to manage its image and planning to pay out $10 billion in dividends this quarter. "What I don't want to hear is, when they're spending that kind of money on their shareholders and spending that kind of money on TV advertising, that they're nickel and diming fishermen or small businesses here in the Gulf," he said.

David Camardelle, the mayor of Grand Isle, urged Mr Obama to deploy barges to stop oil from seeping up the estuaries. "You've got $2bn of seafood that comes out of the estuary right behind me. If we lose the estuaries in the back, we're history. There's no reason that shrimper should be tied up behind me. It should have skimmers on it," Mr Camardelle told the president. "I'm asking you to push BP to do it."

During his trip, Mr Obama did not back away from a six-month federal moratorium on deepwater exploratory drilling, a cause of great concern in the Mississippi River delta where the oil industry just as much as fishing is an important economic driver. An estimated 20,000 jobs could be lost because of the drilling moratorium, according to the local Times-Picayune newspaper. Few in Louisiana want stringent curbs on the oil industry but argue for better regulation and a more fair allocation of revenues.

Terry Vegas, a shrimper, told Mr Obama that most oil companies that drill in the Gulf were vital to the local economy. "We're not bitter at all the oil companies," he said. "We're bitter at the ones that cut corners and caused the havoc we're having right now." sdevi@thenational.ae