A MONTH ago President Obama opened large areas of US coastal waters to offshore drilling with the reassurance for the American people that "oil rigs today generally don't cause spills".
Yesterday he flew to Louisiana to head off mounting criticism that his Government's response to the Gulf Coast oil disaster had been too little and too late, and to neutralise a potentially devastating soundbite, that this is "his Katrina".
As Air Force One touched down in New Orleans, fresh analysis of satellite photographs by the University of Miami indicated that the oil slick off Mississippi may have tripled in size in the past two days.
BP raised hopes that specially constructed steel boxes could be in place within days over the three big oil leaks on the seabed, but the only certain solution to the crisis, capping the well with concrete, remains months off.
Mr Obama's four-hour flying visit to a region still recovering from Hurricane Katrina was part of an urgent push by the White House to show that its response to Louisiana's latest disaster had been more nimble than that of President Bush in 2005.
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The Bush Administration never recovered from images of the President peering down on a flooded New Orleans through an aircraft window and congratulating his emergency response chief on doing "a heck of a job".
With a vulnerable ecosystem and an entire regional economy at stake, Mr Obama honoured an invitation to entertain reporters and celebrities at the annual White House Correspondents' dinner on Saturday, but cut short a comic routine to remind his audience of "the incredible struggles of our fellow Americans on the Gulf Coast".
Earlier in the day he used an address for new graduates at the University of Michigan to remind BP of its responsibility "under the law" to pay the entire cost of the clean-up.
The economic shutdown that thousands of fishermen have been dreading for the past ten days came minutes after Mr Obama's arrival. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the closure of commercial shrimp and oyster fisheries from the Mississippi to Pensacola, 240km east on the northern Florida coast.
The closure is initially for ten days but experts fear that prevailing currents will steadily push the slick north and east, then south.
"It will be on the east coast of Florida in no time," Hans Graber, from the University of Miami, said. "It is more a question of when than if."
There are even fears that, if the wellhead spewing crude oil into the Gulf 1.6km below its surface remains uncapped, the expanding slick could enter the Gulf Stream and travel up the US eastern seaboard.
Admiral Thad Allen of the US Coast Guard, the new overall commander of the federal response, said that it was impossible to know how much oil is leaking from three breaks in the massive riser pipe that linked the wellhead to the Deepwater Horizon rig until it sank ten days ago.
In the absence of hard information, the only thing that is clear about this disaster is that it grows worse every day. Documents dated February 2009 have emerged in which BP claimed to be ready to handle a leak in the Gulf of Mexico of up to 8 million gallons a day. The total released since April 20 was put at 1.6 million gallons by Sunday, but one Venice charter boat captain said yesterday it was already clear that the company was "pretty much in over its head in the deep water".
BP admits that none of the strategies it is using to stem the release of oil has been tried before at this depth, but its most senior US official said yesterday that steel boxes could be in place within six days. Oil would then be piped from the boxes to the surface.
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