Reporting from New Orleans and Los Angeles — Efforts to contain the flood of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico showed signs of progress as a cap placed atop BP's blown-out well managed to capture 6,000 barrels of oil in its first 24 hours, officials announced Saturday.
No one knows exactly how much is still spewing from the well, although estimates by a government task force before the well was capped ranged between 12,000 and 25,000 barrels of oil daily.
The containment cap, the latest in a string of efforts to cope with the massive spill, is funneling oil and gas to a surface ship about a mile above the wellhead.
But engineers are allowing most of the oil to continue escaping through four vents in the cap because the force of the flow could burst the rubber gasket that holds the cap in place.
"They're making sure they don't increase the production rate until it is safe to do so," Coast Guard incident commander Adm. Thad Allen told reporters Saturday. "They're easing the pressure up to the vessel…so they can maintain control of the oil."
On Saturday afternoon, a BP spokesman said the company had no estimate as to when the vents would be closed. "Over the next few days we will be adjusting the cap to work as best as we can," Toby Odone said.
The amount of oil pumped to the surface could be constrained, given that the surface ship can receive only 15,000 barrels daily, Odone acknowledged.
The company's website, BP.com, continued to stream live video of the effort, prompting a cottage industry of engineers, drilling experts and amateur second-guessers to flood the Internet with critiques and analyses of why the procedure was not moving faster.
Allen emphasized that the containment cap is only a partial solution, never intended to permanently plug the leak. That can only happen once a relief well intercepts the original well, allowing it to be cemented. Two relief wells are being drilled but will not be finished before August. That operation could be delayed into the fall if it's interrupted by hurricanes.
The April 20 blowout, which occurred 50 miles off Louisiana, has led to the worst oil spill in U.S. history. It is expected to contaminate shores from Louisiana to Florida, damage undersea life with plumes of oil, and could eventually pollute parts of the Atlantic Coast, traveling on ocean currents.
In Louisiana on Saturday, specialists stepped up efforts to rescue oil-contaminated wildlife as concerns mounted that the population of Louisiana brown pelicans, which only recently bounced back from near extinction, could once again be destabilized.
On the southeast shore of Grand Terre Island, Marc Dantzker, a biologist and documentary filmmaker with Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology, called a rescue hotline after finding two pelicans coated with oil and near death.
"Saving individual birds is great, but it's not the answer to the larger ecological problem," he said.
The number of birds collected by wildlife teams has doubled in the last two days, to 724. Most were dead.
In his weekly address Saturday, President Obama focused on his administration's response to the spill, ticking off government efforts, including the deployment of National Guard troops and the mobilization of scientists and engineers.
The president, who on Friday wrapped up his third trip to the gulf in the last six weeks, also pledged again to take a tough line with BP and push necessary legislative changes to prevent future catastrophes.
"If laws are inadequate, laws will be changed," Obama said. "If oversight was lacking, it will be strengthened. And if laws were broken, those responsible will be brought to justice."
Obama promised to hold BP accountable for the costs of the damage. "We will make sure they pay every single dime owed to the people along the Gulf Coast," he said.
Responding to Obama's earlier warning to BP against "nickel-and-diming" gulf residents who have lost money as a result of the oil spill, BP's vice president of resources, Darryl Willis, told reporters that the company had not denied any claims.
In a news conference in Orange Beach, Ala., Willis said 35,000 claims have been filed by fishermen, hotel owners, seafood sellers and other affected residents. Of those, 17,500 have been approved, and the remainder is being processed, he said.
The company has paid out $42 million so far, Willis said, adding, "Anyone who has experienced a loss will be made whole.... We are trying to make this process as simple as possible."
On Saturday, a dozen slabs of thick crude oil, some more than 30 feet long, washed up on the sugar-white beaches of the Florida Panhandle. On Pensacola Beach, sunbathers picked their way through slimy hamburger-sized tar balls. In their midst, workers with protective suits and heavy rubber gloves roamed the beach.
With workers collecting tar balls in the background, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and musician Jimmy Buffett used the Pensacola fishing pier as a stage to tout the state's resilience.
"This is an environmental disaster nobody asked for, but Floridians are a tough people," said Buffett, wearing his Margaritaville-brand flip-flops and standing on concrete decking that was blotched with oil residue. "I think the biggest thing is to not get a sky-is-falling attitude."
For Buffett, oil slicks could threaten crucial summer revenues as he opens his $50-million Margaritaville Beach Hotel in Pensacola Beach.
Florida officials fear that a sharp decline in visitors, scared off by dirty beaches, could drive up coastal unemployment. The state draws about 80 million visitors a year, and tourism, the state's No. 1 industry, accounts for a quarter of its sales-tax revenue.
Times staff photographer Carolyn Cole on Grand Terre Island, La., and Orlando Sentinel reporter Kevin Spear in Pensacola Beach, Fla., contributed to this report.