PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — President Barack Obama declared Gulf Coast beaches clean, safe and open for business Saturday as he brought his family to the Florida Panhandle and promised residents that the government wouldn’t forget them once efforts to stop the leak are finished.
On a warm and muggy day, Obama pledged to “keep up our efforts until the environment is cleaned, polluters are held accountable, businesses and communities are made whole, and the people of the Gulf Coast are back on their feet.”
Obama is in the region for a brief weekend trip with first lady Michelle Obama, daughter Sasha (her sister Malia is at summer camp) and the family dog, Bo. Their 27-hour stop in the Sunshine State is as much a family vacation as it is an attempt by the president to convince Americans that this region, so dependent on tourism revenue, is safe for travel — and that its surf is clean.
To reinforce that message, Obama and Sasha swam in the Gulf’s waters on Saturday, according to White House spokesman Bill Burton. The highly anticipated dip was away from the media’s view.
Obama said his family planned to “enjoy the beach and the water — to let our fellow Americans know that they should come on down here.”
The first family ventured to Lime’s Bayside Bar & Grill, where they relaxed on an outdoor deck overlooking the water and ate a lunch of fish tacos, chicken tenders and burgers. After a quiet afternoon at their beachfront hotel, the Obamas headed into town for a family miniature golf outing.
Nine-year old Sasha stole the show, hitting a hole-in-one off the first tee, much to the delight of her father, an avid golfer.
“That’s how you do it!” the president exclaimed, before shooting par with his two strokes on the first hole.
The White House scheduled the trip after facing criticism that the president wasn’t heeding his own advice that Americans vacation in the Gulf. Obama has vacationed in North Carolina and Maine this year and is heading to Martha’s Vineyard, off the Massachusetts coast, later in August. Mrs. Obama also traveled to Spain this month with Sasha.
Gulf Coast residents and local officials are hoping the president’s stop here will jump-start the tourism industry, which has been reeling since the spill. Although only 16 of the 180 beaches in the western part of the Panhandle were affected by the spill, tourism officials say many potential visitors have stayed away, deterred by images of oil-slicked waters and tarball-strewn beaches in other parts of the region.
“It’s the biggest single commercial you could imagine,” Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said of the president’s visit.
Crist was among the local officials and small business owners who joined Obama earlier in the day at a meeting to discuss the pace of recovery efforts.
Obama, who is on his fifth trip to the region since the spill began, said he knows Gulf Coast residents have been frustrated by the slow payment of claims from a $20 billion BP fund for those who have suffered damages as a result of the spill, and he pledged to rectify that.
“Any delay by BP or those managing the new funds are unacceptable, and I will keep pushing to get these claims expedited,” the president said.
Alabama’s attorney general on Thursday sued BP and others companies associated with the spill, seeking unspecified economic and punitive damages. At least 300 federal lawsuits have been filed in 12 states against BP and the other three main companies involved in the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drill rig.
The president’s trip came as the government’s point man on the Gulf spill said he wants additional testing before he orders BP to finish drilling a relief well that will allow the oil giant to plug the well for good.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen told reporters on Saturday that it could be late Monday or early Tuesday before officials know the results of those tests.
That means it would be Tuesday at the earliest before he gives his final order to proceed with the relief well, and next weekend at the earliest before the relief well intercepts the runaway well.