BILOXI, Miss. — Oil sheens began lapping the shores of Louisiana's barrier islands on Thursday as emergency crews moved a 78-ton dome into place in the Gulf of Mexico in hopes of lowering it over a runaway oil well 5,000 feet below the water's surface.
Top federal officials stopped in Mississippi and along the Florida Panhandle to tell people there's no need to panic. However, they also acknowledged the seriousness of the environmental threat. The well has spewed millions of gallons into the sea since it began leaking two weeks ago.
"We don't want to be Pollyanna-ish, but we don't want to predict Armageddon," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at Kessler Air Force Base here, flanked by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, and other top officials.
Napolitano described the spill, which now covers nearly 4,000 square miles of the gulf, as a "unique and still-evolving and potentially an unprecedented disaster," but cautioned that worst case scenarios might not come true.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Later, she traveled to Pensacola, Fla., where Gov. Charlie Crist said officials were caught off guard by the ferocity of the explosion that destroyed the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon two weeks ago and triggered the spill.
"Nobody anticipated that something like this would occur, but obviously it has," said Crist, who's running for the Senate as an independent and in the days since the spill has announced that he can no longer support offshore drilling.
Napolitano's multi-state swing came as the difficult work continued to capture the gushing oil beneath the 78-ton containment dome — really more of a box with a pyramid on top. Engineers hope that the dome will capture as much as 85 percent of the leaking oil. The oil will then be pumped into a ship, the Deepwater Enterprise, before being moved to a storage barge.
Napolitano repeated experts' warnings that the dome might not work — the technique has never been used to contain a spill in such deep water — and said the government was prepared for that.
"I hope it works," she said. "We are proceeding as if it won't."
That meant emergency crews continued to place anti-oil booms, or barriers, around marshes and shorelines, train volunteers to clean birds, and worry about weather forecasts that suggested the massive blob would move both north, toward Louisiana, and east, toward the Florida Panhandle.
In Washington, the Interior Department canceled three public hearings that had been scheduled for later this month in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina in preparation for the eventual leasing of oil drilling rights along the Atlantic coast.
The move was hailed by environmentalists and some members of Congress as the first step by the Obama administration toward rescinding its previous approval of new offshore leases.
"The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, like the disaster last year in Australia, has opened a lot of eyes to the fact that there is no such thing as a 'Too Safe to Spill' oil rig," Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., an opponent of offshore drilling, said in a statement. "I am certainly glad that the administration acknowledges this and has pressed the pause button. I hope that we can soon press the stop button."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce lamented the action, however.
"Today's decision runs contrary to the administration's commitment to refrain from snap judgments," the chamber said in a statement attributed to Karen Harbert, the head of the chamber's Institute for 21st Century Energy. "Now especially is not the time to be canceling a transparent process to assess the prospects for and potential environmental impacts of offshore exploration."
Authorities reported early Thursday that oil had hit the shoreline along Freemason Island, part of the Chandeleur Island chain in Louisiana, but U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Connie Terrell at the Joint Information Center in Mobile, Ala., said there'd been no other sightings of oil hitting land. She said an emergency crew had been deployed to the area and was "assessing the cleanup options."
Emergency crews that had set fire to the oil in five places on Wednesday were scheduled to undertake more controlled burns on Thursday, but Terrell couldn't confirm that they'd taken place. She said she didn't know how much oil had been consumed by Wednesday's fire. To date, emergency crews have recovered 1.9 million gallons of oil-water mix, she said.
Some local residents reported spotting what they thought to be remnants of the spill.
On Mississippi's Sand Island, one of the smallest of the state's barrier islands, near the eastern end of the chain, attorney Scott Taylor said what appeared to be tar balls were washing ashore in great numbers.
Taylor, who had let his 5- and 10-year old sons skip school for what he fears might be the last boat excursion for a while, said he was sickened by what he saw: black, oily balls, the consistency of clay and ranging in size from a quarter to a baseball washing in "everywhere" on Sand Island. He and his sons gathered a garbage bag full.
"I've been coming out here for 20 years, and I've never seen this," Taylor said. "I'm heartbroken."
Further along the coast, at Pensacola's beaches, the smell arrived — although the oil hadn't.
"It's just terrible," said Benjamin "Steve" Stevens, a Public Service Commissioner who grew up in Pensacola. "You get hit by a hurricane and you can rebuild. But when that stuff washes up on the white sands of Pensacola Beach, you can't just go and get more white sand."
In Congress, meanwhile, support was building for raising the limits on what oil companies can be forced to pay in compensation for damages from oil spills.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she would back a plan to increase cleanup oil companies' liability, and Alaska's two senators, drawing on their experience with the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, filed bipartisan legislation that would allow a separate liability fund to grow to up to $10 billion by raising a per-barrel tax on the oil industry.
Two House Democrats called for an independent "blue-ribbon" commission to examine the oil spill and make recommendations.
The political outcry from the spill continued in Florida, where Democrats held news conferences in St. Petersburg and Miami Beach to demand that Crist call a special legislative session to allow Floridians to vote on a constitutional amendment banning drilling off Florida's coast. Crist said he'd be willing to consider such a move.
The Republican attorneys general of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas sent a letter Thursday to President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, proposing "a state-federal working group to coordinate preparation for any damage assessment initiatives, enforcement or litigation" in connection with the spill.
(Pender, of The Sun Herald, reported from Biloxi; Miss. Wyss and Lebovich, of the Miami Herald, reported from Miami. Contributing to this article were Joseph Goodman, Curtis Morgan, Sergio R. Bustos and Mary Ellen Klas of The Miami Herald. McClatchy correspondents Lesley Clark and Erika Bolstad from Washington, and Sara Kennedy, of the Bradenton Herald, from Bradenton, Fla., also contributed.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY