PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. – In sensitive marshes on the Louisiana coast, oil thick as pancake batter suffocates grasses and traps pelicans. Blobs of tar the size of dimes or dinner plates dot the white sands of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. Little seems amiss in Mississippi except a shortage of tourists, but an oily sheen glides atop the sea west of Tampa.
The oil spill plaguing the states along the Gulf of Mexico isn't one slick — it's many.
"We're no longer dealing with a large, monolithic spill," Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said Monday at a White House news conference. "We're dealing with an aggregation of hundreds of thousands of patches of oil that are going a lot of different directions."
Officials reported that a containment cap over the BP gusher at the bottom of the Gulf was sucking up one-third to three-quarters of the oil â€” but also noted that its effects could linger for years.
And as the oil patches flirt with the coastline, slathering some spots and leaving others alone, residents who depend on tourism and fishing are wondering in the here and now how to head off the damage or salvage a season that's nearing its peak.
At the Salty Dog Surf Shop in Panama City Beach, near the eastern end of the spill area, manager Glen Thaxton hawked T-shirts, flip-flops and sunglasses with usual briskness Monday, even as officials there warned oil could appear on the sand within 72 hours.
"It could come to a screeching halt real quick," Thaxton said. "So we've been calling vendors and telling them don't ship anything else until further notice."
In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour over the weekend angrily blasted news coverage that he said was scaring away tourists at the start of the busy summer season by making it seem as if "the whole coast from Florida to Texas is ankle-deep in oil."
Mississippi, he insisted on "Fox News Sunday," was clean.
That sounded about right to Darlene Kimball, who runs Kimball Seafood on the docks at Pass Christian.
"Mississippi waters are open, and we're catching shrimp," Kimball said. Still, her business is hurting because of a perception that Gulf seafood isn't safe, she said, and because many shrimpers have signed up to help corral the spill elsewhere.
The random, scattered nature of the oil was evident Monday during a trip across the state line between Alabama and Florida.
On the Alabama side, clumps of seaweed laden with oil littered beaches for miles. Huge orange globs stained the sand in places.
But at Perdido Key, on the Florida side, the sand was white and virtually crude-free. Members of a five-person crew had to look for small dots of oil to pick up, stooping over every few yards for another piece.
"It's beautiful here today," said Josiah Holmes, of Gulf Shores, Ala. He and his wife, Lydia, had driven across the state line because the beach was such a mess at home.
For some who are planning vacations in the region but live elsewhere, the spill's fickle nature is causing confusion.
Adam Warriner, a customer service agent with California-based CSA Travel protection, said the company is getting a lot of calls from vacationers worried the oil will disrupt their trips — even if they're headed to South Carolina, nowhere near the spill area.
"As of now we haven't included oil into any of our coverage language, and that's not something that I've heard is happening," he said.
That kind of misperception worries residents and officials in areas that aren't being hit hard by the oil — and even those in some that are.
"The daily images of the oil is obviously having an impact," said Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, the state closest to the leak and the one where the oil is having its most insidious effects on wildlife. "It's having a heavy, real, very negative impact on our economy."
Some of the most enduring images are of pelicans and other wildlife drenched in oil.
In a sweltering metal building in Fort Jackson, workers in biohazard suits were doing the time-consuming task of cleaning oiled brown pelicans and releasing them back into the wild. After getting 192 in the last six weeks, 86 were delivered on Sunday, the biggest rescue since the BP rig exploded on April 20, spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
"We did have someone faint today because of the heat," said Jay Holcomb, executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center.
A table is lined with tubs, bottles and even a microwave. In the tub an enormous pelican, turned almost black by the oil, sits stoically as workers pour a light vegetable oil over it. A process they humorously refer to as marinating, which has to be done before the birds can be washed.
"They respond really well to the cleaning," said Heather Nevill, the veterinarian overseeing the process. "If we get them in time."
At Barataria Bay, La., just west of the mouth of the Mississippi River, large patches of thick oil floated in the still waters Monday. A dead sea turtle caked in brownish-red oil lay splayed out with dragonflies buzzing by.
The Barataria estuary, which has become one of the hardest-hit areas, was busy with shrimp boats skimming up oil and officials in boats and helicopters patrolling the islands and bays to assess the state of wildlife and the movement of oil.
On remote islands, oil visibly tainted pelicans, gulls, terns and herons.
President Barack Obama sought to reassure Americans by saying that "we will get through this crisis" but that it would take dedication.
Later, he said he's been talking closely with Gulf Coast fishermen and various experts on BP's catastrophic oil spill and not for lofty academic reasons.
"I talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers — so I know whose ass to kick," the president said.
The salty words, part of Obama's recent efforts to telegraph to Americans his engagement with the crisis, came in an interview in Michigan with NBC's "Today" show.
"This will be contained," Obama said earlier. "It may take some time, and it's going to take a whole lot of effort. There is going to be damage done to the Gulf Coast, and there is going to be economic damages that we've got to make sure BP is responsible for and compensates people for."
Obama's prediction of further damage only exacerbated a sense of dread filling residents in places the oil had yet to foul, like Panama City Beach.
"It just makes me sick to my stomach to think about one morning I could wake up and our beaches would be ruined," said Joseph Carrington, a 39-year-old worker at a scooter rental service who moved five years ago from Chester, N.Y., out of love for the beach.
"I have nightmares thinking about it on what it would do to us, my job, all of our jobs."
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