JUDY WOODRUFF: After six weeks, there were finally some signs of success today in the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. BP's operation to cap and control the oil flow from a damaged well cleared a key hurdle.
The first critical maneuver was accomplished early today. The main pipe at the wellhead was severed by robotic arms wielding heavy industrial shears. That followed halting efforts to cut the pipe with a diamond-edged circular blade.
With the shearing done, the oil flow increased sharply, as predicted, in a black surge from the now straight pipe end. Video feeds then showed a containment apparatus ready to be lowered into place a mile deep.
In Houston, Texas, at BP's command center, chief executive officer Tony Hayward called it an important milestone.
TONY HAYWARD, CEO, BP Group: The next 12 to 24 hours will give us an indication of how successful this attempt will be.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But the shearing was not as clean a cut as the saw would have made. That means the cap may not fit tightly, allowing more oil to escape.
Still, Hayward said BP plans to have a fully sealed containment system in place by the end of June. All in all, it is the latest step in a six-week struggle to control the oil, if not plug the well. Initially, BP tried successfully to repair the blowout preventer on the seafloor, the huge device designed to cut off the oil flow.
Its failure led to the initial explosion on April 20 aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig. In early May, a huge dome was lowered to divert oil to the surface, but its inner workings froze in the deep, cold water. After that, a hose was inserted into the leaking pipe to siphon oil. It sucked up some of the oil, but not nearly all of it.
Then came top kill and junk shot, the efforts to clog the crippled blowout preventer and plug the well. After three days, they were deemed a failure this past weekend.
In today's Financial Times, BP's Hayward conceded it was an entirely fair criticism to say the oil giant had been unprepared for this disaster -- quote -- "What is undoubtedly true," he said, "is that we didn't have the tools you would want in your toolkit."
Through it all, oil has continued to gush, over 40 million gallons to date by some estimates, and the oily mass is moving east and could reach the tourism-dependent beaches of the Florida Panhandle within hours.
LORIE DALLAS, beachgoer: This will probably be the last time for a very long time I actually get to see and enjoy the beach.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And a new worst-case scenario from the NATIONAL CENTER for Atmospheric Research showed where the oil could travel eventually by the four-month mark after the spill began.
Back in Louisiana, Coast Guard liaison Pat Hanley is helping supervise BP's cleaning of a beach at Port Fourchon. He spoke with the "NewsHour"'s Spencer Michels.
SPENCER MICHELS: Well, what is the report card?
LT. PAT HANLEY, U.S. Coast Guard: Well I don't think I can give a report card, per se. I think this is a dynamic situation. But, certainly, if we see that anything's not occurring, we feel we need more resources, as a Coast Guard, we feel we need to bring things to bear that aren't here, then we are going push back on that issue. We're going to identify those things. We're going to bring them to BP and say these are the things we must have to do this job right.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The BP boss, Tony Hayward, insisted today his company will stay on the job.
TONY HAYWARD: BP will be here for a very long time. We recognize that this is just the beginning.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But some local officials have already lost faith.
John Young is the council chairman of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, which stretches south from New Orleans.
JOHN YOUNG, chair, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, Council: I mean, initially, I advocated that BP should have been concentrating on stopping the flow of oil, and, after a week, the federal government should have come in and taken control of protecting the shores, the coast, and the wetlands.
Now I think the federal government ought to come in and take control of the entire operation, because BP has shown it's not up to the task.
JUDY WOODRUFF: As the crisis continues, President Obama will be back in Louisiana tomorrow, his third trip there since the spill began.