GRAND ISLE, La. – Waves of gooey tar balls crashed into the white sands of the Florida Panhandle on Friday as BP engineers adjusted a sophisticated cap over the Gulf oil gusher, trying to collect the crude.
Even though the inverted funnel-like device was set over the leak late Thursday, crude continued to spew into the sea in the nation’s worst oil spill. Engineers hoped to close several open vents on the cap throughout the day in the latest attempt to contain the oil.
The cap has different colored hoses loosely attached to it to help combat the near-freezing temperatures and icylike crystals that could clog it. The device started pumping oil and gas to a tanker on the surface overnight, but it wasn’t clear how much.
“Progress is being made, but we need to caution against over-optimism,” said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government’s point man for the disaster.
He said a very rough estimate of current collection would be about 42,000 gallons a day, though he stressed the information was anecdotal.
In Florida, spotters who had been seeing a few tar balls in recent days found a substantially larger number before dawn on the beaches of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and nearby areas, a county emergency official said. The park is a long string of connected barrier islands near Pensacola.
Just to the west at Gulf Shores, Ala., Wendi Butler watched glistening clumps of oil roll onto the white sand beach during a morning stroll. An oily smell was in the air.
“You don’t smell the beach breeze at all,” said Butler, 40.
Butler moved to Perdido Bay from Mobile days before the spill. Now, her two kids don’t want to visit because of the oil and she can’t find a job.
“Restaurants are cutting back to their winter staffs because of it. They’re not hiring,” she said.
President Barack Obama was set to visit the Louisiana coast Friday, his second trip in a week and the third since the disaster unfolded following an April 20 oil rig explosion. Eleven workers were killed.
Robots a mile beneath the Gulf were shooting chemical dispersants at the escaping oil — though it looked more like flares when illuminated a mile underwater.