JUDY WOODRUFF: BP claimed progress today in its six-week struggle with that gushing oil well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. And, onshore, the president was back for another update on the disaster.
Ray Suarez begins our coverage.
RAY SUAREZ: BP managed to install a cap on the damaged wellhead last night designed to greatly reduce the flow. Still, as the hours passed, oil continued to burst from the seafloor a mile below the surface.
Company officials said the visible leakage was expected.
BP's Doug Suttles:
DOUG SUTTLES, COO, Global Exploration, BP: But what you're seeing on TV is, there are a series of four vents on the top of this cap which actually let oil out the top. And we will be successively closing those vents as we bring the production up that.
I'm actually pretty confident this is going to work. It probably won't capture all of the flow, but it should capture the vast majority. And I think we will know that over the course of today.
RAY SUAREZ: One early estimate was that 42,000 gallons per day were being collected, but up to 20 times that much oil may be escaping every day from the out-of-control wellhead. By this afternoon, another BP executive said it would take a few days for the cap to get to peak efficiency.
While that operation continued, President Obama made his third quick trip to the region, the second in two weeks, landing at Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans. He held off-camera meetings with federal, state and local officials, and also with people affected by the spill.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It does appear as -- that the cap, at least for now, is holding. We will know more over the next 24 to 48 hours. And it is way too early to be optimistic.
RAY SUAREZ: To underscore his point, the president canceled a trip to Indonesia and Australia scheduled for later this month.
Meanwhile, the spreading effects of the disaster in the Gulf were seen in stark relief: heartrending images of heavily-oiled birds, dead or dying in viscous waves on Grand Terre Island, Louisiana.
Governor Bobby Jindal:
GOV. BOBBY JINDAL, R-La.: What we're concerned about is not only this bird, but the future. That's why it's so important for us not to allow this oil to get in these wetlands.
RAY SUAREZ: The Brown pelican, Louisiana's state bird, had survived near extinction caused by the pesticide DDT. Its population had thrived in recent years, but the oil has posed an entirely new threat.
Elsewhere, beachfront towns in the Florida Panhandle braced for the worst.
WOMAN: Fish are going to die. And then the birds are going to die. And then vegetation is going to die. I would like to see the whole community come out here every morning and start scooping.
RAY SUAREZ: Tar balls began washing up at Pensacola Beach and elsewhere.
Governor Charlie Crist:
GOV. CHARLIE CRIST, I, Fla.: And the news this morning, to hear that there is oil there, is one of the most disturbing things that we could imagine. So, obviously, there must be a shift in the current and the wind over the night. So, we're not happy about that.
RAY SUAREZ: Alabama Governor Bob Riley had a complaint of his own, that locals put out of work by the spill are not being hired to help clean it up.
GOV. BOB RILEY, R-Ala.: Every person that I saw tending boom was from the state of Maine. Now, that just defies logic. And, again, we have had assurances from everyone involved that that's about -- about to change.
RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, scientists confirmed today that at least two giant underwater plumes of oil have accumulated in the Gulf. Last weekend, BP's CEO, Tony Hayward, denied such plumes existed.
Today, Hayward faced a different challenge: reassuring BP investors. In a conference call, he said the firm had sufficient cash reserves to meet its obligations, and he pledged to restore both the Gulf Coast and his company's sullied name.
But the president said, now is not the time to worry about corporate image.
BARACK OBAMA: My understanding is, is that BP is -- has contracted for $50 million worth of TV advertising to manage their image during the course of this disaster.
But I want BP to be very clear that they have got moral and legal obligations here in the Gulf for the damage that has been done. And what I don't want to hear is when they're spending kind of money on their shareholders, and spending that kind of money on TV advertising, that they're nickel-and-diming fishermen or small businesses here in the Gulf who are having a hard time.
PROTESTERS: Greedy BP oil wells burst because you put your profits first!
RAY SUAREZ: Protests, like this one today in Washington, added to public calls for Hayward and the company to be held to account.