Obama oil response: Aggressive as crisis unfolded

President Barack Obama didn`t mention the drama unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico.

Washington: It was a two-day trip to the Midwest to talk about jobs and clean energy. President Barack Obama didn`t mention the drama unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, where oil was gushing from a broken well pipe a mile beneath the sea.

The situation hadn`t become a priority. Soon it would.

On the return to Washington aboard Air Force One, Obama learned the spill had become more worrisome. A third break was discovered at the destroyed well pipe on the ocean floor 40 miles from Louisiana`s precious coastal marshes. Federal scientists believed at least 5,000 barrels of oil a day were being released — five times more than original estimates.

And there was no way to stop the flow.

The Gulf region, ravaged five years earlier by Hurricane Katrina, was on the verge of a second ecological disaster. Would there be a repeat of the bureaucratic bungling that marked President George W. Bush`s response to the hurricane?

While the Obama administration has faced second-guessing about the speed and effectiveness of some of its actions, a narrative pieced together by The Associated Press, based on documents, interviews and public statements, shows little resemblance to Katrina in either the characterization of the threat or the federal government`s response.

On April 20, an explosion engulfed the floating BP oil rig in fire, toppling it into the sea and sending 126 workers fleeing. Eleven never made it and are presumed dead.

Eight days later, from Air Force One, Obama told advisers he wanted an aggressive response to what had suddenly become a more menacing threat to the ecology and economy of the Gulf Coast. The president made no mention of the new developments when he strolled to the back of the plane to chat with the traveling press pool.

The fresh concerns would be outlined by the Coast Guard at a news conference that evening. It was not until the next day — nine days after the explosion and five days after first word the well was spewing oil — that the government would declare it a "spill of national significance."

Critics have asked why the administration did not move more quickly on that declaration, even though the real-world impact is viewed by many as largely symbolic.

This came from Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.: "The American people deserve to know why the administration was slow to respond, why necessary equipment was not immediately on hand in the area and why the president did not fully deploy Cabinet-level federal officials" to the Gulf Coast until April 30.

The AP review found that the administration — aware of the political scars left on the Bush White House over Katrina — moved early with rescue efforts. Also, the government knew within days that while no leak had been found, the potential for environmental harm existed.

From day to day, as the situation evolved from devastating fire and dramatic rescue to a possible environmental hazard, the response activities changed, too, according to documents and interviews.

Bureau Report