NEW ORLEANS/VENICE, La. - The worst oil spill in U.S. history hit its 40th day on Saturday with Gulf residents clinging to the tenuous hope that BP's complicated "top kill" operation will plug the gushing well.
The tricky maneuver started on Wednesday and involves pumping heavy fluids and other material into the well shaft to stifle the flow. BP had said repeatedly that it needed another 24 to 48 hours to know whether it would succeed, but backed off of giving time estimates on Saturday.
"The top kill operation continues and will carry on throughout the day today. We're not putting any time constraints on the operation - it will progress as operations teams deem appropriate through the day today and longer if necessary," company spokesman Tom Mueller said in an email.
Beleaguered Louisiana residents heard from President Barack Obama and BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward on separate visits to the Gulf coast on Friday as they tried to get a handle on a crisis damaging the credibility of both the government and BP.
Obama faced criticism that he responded too slowly to the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico and assured Louisianians during his five-hour visit that they "will not be left behind" and that the "buck stops" with him.
Hayward visited the site of the April 20 rig explosion that killed 11 workers and unleashed the oil, and said the energy giant needed up to two more days to determine if the top kill will stop the underwater gusher once and for all.
investors jittery and drove BP shares down 5 percent on Friday.
"We're continuing because we are making progress," Hayward said on a drilling ship at the site, with perspiration dripping from under a white plastic BP safety hat.
Obama is caught in a tight spot: there is not much he can do about the well other than apply pressure to BP to get it right and put his best scientists in the room. The government has no deep-sea oil technology of its own.
That fact is not lost on the people of Louisiana's coast, a hub of the U.S. oil industry and now the site of the country's largest oil spill which surpassed the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaskan waters.
'WANT OUR BEACH BACK'
"I wouldn't know what to ask him to do, other than stop the leak," said John Bourg, a resident of Grand Isle who watched the president's motorcade roar by on Friday. "And I'd put more faith in an oil company to stop a leak than anybody else."
But that doesn't mean the public will forgive the first-term president, who is anxious to avoid comparisons to former President George W. Bush after his government's much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Polls show that Americans are losing faith in the Obama administration's response to the spill as oil seeps farther into fragile marshlands and shuts down a good chunk of the lucrative fishing industry.
Still, BP gets worse marks and faces anger over lack of proper clean-up of the 100 miles (160 km) of Louisiana coastline and the oil in the gulf.
In Grand Isle, 17-year old Hanna Lemoie posted a sign she painted that read "BP ... we want our beach back."
"The beach, the waves had like orange oil coming in and it made me mad because there was nobody cleaning it up and I felt helpless," Lemoie said.
The frustration, the anger and the delays all were taking their toll - on Obama, Hayward, the residents and those working to plug the well.
Concocting revenge fantasies has become a popular sport.
A Louisiana resident suggested in a letter to the Times Picayune newspaper that BP executives be tarred in spilled oil, rolled in blackened pelican feathers and sent to the guillotine so their severed heads could be used in a "junk shot" to clog the well.
The creators of the "B-Pee Day" Facebook page urged readers to urinate on BP gas stations, declaring "They leaked on us, it's time to take a leak on them."