On July 4 in spill country, pondering America

LAFITTE, La. — From the country's earliest days, when a handful of colonists became fed up with Britain and decided independence was worth dying for, Americans have been guided by fires in their bellies and a deep belief in the ability to accomplish anything.

For the United States, big dreams and the confidence they inspire have always produced big deeds — the creation of a new nation, the taming of a frontier, the building of an industrial giant and the ascent of a superpower.

But on the weekend when we celebrate becoming Americans, an inability to plug a spewing oil well in the Gulf of Mexico — or launch a coherent, effective cleanup response on par with the disaster — has many people along the coastline wondering whether we have lost our way.

"From an American standpoint, this whole thing is ridiculous," said Cliff Tucker, a 63-year-old retired police officer. Like many in this town 30 miles south of New Orleans, he lives on a bayou just a short boat ride to the ocean. "When you lose your faith in the system," Tucker wonders, "then where do you go?"

While it would be foolish, not to mention inaccurate, to suggest that an uncontrollable gusher means Americans are no longer capable of reaching the moon or rebuilding war-ravaged Europe, the spill and its disastrous aftereffects have produced an unusual feeling of impotence.

"Right now, this country is about as upside down as it can get," said Carmen Wenzel, 56. She sells postcards, umbrellas and sunglasses at a store in touristy Pensacola Beach, where washed-up oil has become a fixture.

Most years her house is as festive on the Fourth of July as on Christmas. This year, her decorations are sitting in the box.

Glum was the order of the day on Dauphin Island, Ala., where flags and patriotic banners decorated light poles but holiday fireworks shows had been canceled. Mayor Jeff Collier said people, dispirited by the spill, were in no mood for a festive blowout. Cleanup workers have taken over parts of town, including a public beach where the parking lot is now a staging area.

Accompanied by her four grown sons and their families, Teri Bahr surveyed the odd scene on the beach and saw a picture of American decline caused by too much reliance on government and too little personal responsibility. "I think this is a sign of how weak we are. We are weak militarily, socially and economically," said Bahr, a retired school counselor from Kansas.

Despite all the frustration and negative navel-gazing, though, the American DNA is resilient and deeply stamped with the belief that a bad situation can, with the right elbow grease and ingenuity, be turned around.

At a holiday parade in Seaside, in Florida's Panhandle, a lime-green Jeep festooned with red, white and blue streamers and balloons had a handmade sign taped to the door: "Let Freedom Ring.'' "The message," its driver said as she passed by, "is don't give up."

• Cleanup crews surveyed damage from last week's hurricane while contending with choppy seas that idled many of the boats dedicated to keeping oil from hitting vulnerable beaches and marshes. Offshore skimming vessels were able to operate in Louisiana waters, but not off the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. The current run of bad weather is likely to last well into the week, says the National Weather Service.

• The government is expected to take over control of the central information website that has been run jointly by various agencies and BP for the 2 ½ months since the rig explosion.

• BP may be looking to sovereign wealth funds in the oil-rich Middle East to fend off takeover bids amid mounting costs from the oil leak disaster, says National, a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates.

• BP remains a heavy supplier of military fuel under contracts worth at least $980 million in the current fiscal year, according to the Defense Logistics Agency. In fiscal 2009, BP was the department's largest single supplier of fuel, providing 11.7 percent of the total purchased, and in 2010, its contracts amount to roughly the same percentage, according to DLA spokeswoman Mimi Schirmacher.

"If this oil congeals on the bottom, it will be dangerous for scuba divers to go down there and explore. The spill will stop investigations; it will put a chill, a halt on (underwater) operations."

Steven Anthony, president of the Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society, on the oil threatening the gulf's barnacled history of shipwrecks, American Indian shell middens and World War II casualties.

$130M

Paid out so far to help local businesses, employees and others affected by the oil spill, Kenneth Feinberg, who was chosen by President Barack Obama to independently administer financial claims, said Sunday.

On July 4 in spill country, pondering America 07/05/10 [Last modified: Monday, July 5, 2010 12:15am]

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