Reporting from Atlanta and Port Fourchon, La. — As storm winds pushed oil over booms protecting the Louisiana coast, Vice President Joe Biden made his first tour of the troubled gulf region Tuesday, assuring locals that claims filed against oil giant BP would be paid even if they exceeded the $20 billion the company set aside in an escrow account.
"That $20-billion fund, that's not a ceiling," Biden said. "BP is required to pay whatever it is [that] falls under their responsibility, whether it ends up being $25, $30, $40 or $50 billion."
The Obama administration pressed BP to create the fund this month, in what Rep. Joe L. Barton (R- Texas) called a "shakedown." That language was echoed in a statement by the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of conservative House GOP members. Biden denounced those comments soon afterward, arguing that the fund was meant to "take care of the immediate needs of people who are drowning."
With some of those desperate residents serving as a backdrop in Louisiana on Tuesday, Biden said: "Some of the guys behind me made some claims, and they've gotten partial payment. The concern was: Is this it? It ain't it. It ain't it. This is the beginning. This is not the end."
Although it was Biden's first visit since the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 people, President Obama has visited the region four times and top administration officials have made repeated visits.
But the administration has been dogged by criticism that its response to the spill, which is spewing up to 60,000 barrels of oil a day, has been sluggish. In a story posted Tuesday on New Orleans news site WWL.com, St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro said that White House officials "need to be down here, not just for a photo op. Not just for a sound bite."
Biden's trip seemed calculated in part to shine a light on the magnitude of the federal response in the region, and also to address specific local concerns. In the morning, he toured the unified command center in downtown New Orleans, where half a dozen protesters stood outside in a light rain carrying signs that said, "Oil kills."
Later, Biden announced that federal agencies and the gulf states had agreed to uniform safety standards for seafood coming out of the gulf. The move came as fishermen have received mixed signals on food safety — in some cases, they have been cleared to fish only to find their catch deemed unsafe by the Food and Drug Administration.
"We want one single standard so y'all don't have to worry about where you fish, if you can fish, and when the waters are open, whether they're federal waters or state waters," Biden said.
The vice president arrived as the first major storm of hurricane season, Alex, pushed through the southwestern Gulf of Mexico, creating large waves that washed oil patches over booms as far as the Mississippi coast.
The storm became a Category 1 hurricane Tuesday night, the National Hurricane Center said. Meteorologists at AccuWeather said it appeared headed to make landfall near Brownsville, Texas.
Because of the rough seas, BP and the Coast Guard sent oil-skimming ships back to shore, the Associated Press reported. And in Washington, the State Department announced that the U.S. was accepting help from 12 countries and international organizations.
Earlier, on the Louisiana coast, oily storm-surge waves, 4 to 6 feet high, crashed onto Fourchon Beach, washing rust-brown oil over white absorbent booms and sandbags and onto the sand.
"They were not made to withstand hurricane-force winds," said Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Anne Marie Gorden, who is based in Atlantic City, N.J. "Mother Nature, in the end, just gets the best of you. You can't beat her, but we're sure trying."
At the shoreline, the wind whipped at the white protective suits worn by dozens of BP contract workers as they scooped oil and sand into plastic bags. Workers in Grand Isle, La., had to scale back some operations Tuesday, including sifting sand for tar balls. But in Port Fourchon, about 900 workers were attacking the latest wave of oil to hit shore. More were skimming oil from the water aboard about 120 boats along the 14-mile stretch of beach, a supervisor said.
"It just started hitting us overnight," said another supervisor, who asked not to be identified as he helped one set of workers suit up in safety gear as another team scrubbed down. "It came in real fast. We're just trying to keep up."
"We're going to feel the effects of Alex even this far out," said Coast Guard Senior Chief Kevin Edwards, normally based out of Staten Island, N.Y. "We're starting to see higher than high tides, which is making the response more difficult. We are making headway with what we can now. I'm sure it's going to get hit again, but we're trying to clear this while we can."