Published: Jun 08, 2010 11:32 AM EDT
Updated: Jun 08, 2010 8:34 AM EDT

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (AP) - In sensitive marshes on the

Louisiana coast, oil thick as pancake batter suffocates grasses and

traps pelicans. Blobs of tar the size of dimes or dinner plates dot

the white sands of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. Little seems

amiss in Mississippi except a shortage of tourists, but an oily

sheen glides atop the sea west of Tampa.

The oil spill plaguing the states along the Gulf of Mexico isn't

one slick - it's many.

"We're no longer dealing with a large, monolithic spill,"

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said Monday at a White House news

conference. "We're dealing with an aggregation of hundreds of

thousands of patches of oil that are going a lot of different

directions."

Officials reported that a containment cap over the BP gusher at

the bottom of the Gulf was sucking up one-third to three-quarters

of the oil - but also noted that its effects could linger for

years.

And as the oil patches flirt with the coastline, slathering some

spots and leaving others alone, residents who depend on tourism and

fishing are wondering in the here and now how to head off the

damage or salvage a season that's nearing its peak.

At the Salty Dog Surf Shop in Panama City Beach, near the

eastern end of the spill area, manager Glen Thaxton hawked

T-shirts, flip-flops and sunglasses with usual briskness Monday,

even as officials there warned oil could appear on the sand within

72 hours.

"It could come to a screeching halt real quick," Thaxton said.

"So we've been calling vendors and telling them don't ship

anything else until further notice."

In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour over the weekend angrily

blasted news coverage that he said was scaring away tourists at the

start of the busy summer season by making it seem as if "the whole

coast from Florida to Texas is ankle-deep in oil."

Mississippi, he insisted on "Fox News Sunday," was clean.

That sounded about right to Darlene Kimball, who runs Kimball

Seafood on the docks at Pass Christian.

"Mississippi waters are open, and we're catching shrimp,"

Kimball said. Still, her business is hurting because of a

perception that Gulf seafood isn't safe, she said, and because many

shrimpers have signed up to help corral the spill elsewhere.

The random, scattered nature of the oil was evident Monday

during a trip across the state line between Alabama and Florida.

On the Alabama side, clumps of seaweed laden with oil littered

beaches for miles. Huge orange globs stained the sand in places.

But at Perdido Key, on the Florida side, the sand was white and

virtually crude-free. Members of a five-person crew had to look for

small dots of oil to pick up, stooping over every few yards for

another piece.

"It's beautiful here today," said Josiah Holmes, of Gulf

Shores, Ala. He and his wife, Lydia, had driven across the state

line because the beach was such a mess at home.

For some who are planning vacations in the region but live

elsewhere, the spill's fickle nature is causing confusion.

Adam Warriner, a customer service agent with California-based

CSA Travel protection, said the company is getting a lot of calls

from vacationers worried the oil will disrupt their trips - even if

they're headed to South Carolina, nowhere near the spill area.

"As of now we haven't included oil into any of our coverage

language, and that's not something that I've heard is happening,"

he said.

That kind of misperception worries residents and officials in

areas that aren't being hit hard by the oil - and even those in

some that are.

"The daily images of the oil is obviously having an impact,"

said Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, the state closest to the leak

and the one where the oil is having its most insidious effects on

wildlife. "It's having a heavy, real, very negative impact on our

economy."

Some of the most enduring images are of pelicans and other

wildlife drenched in oil.

In a sweltering metal building in Fort Jackson, workers in

biohazard suits were doing the time-consuming task of cleaning

oiled brown pelicans and releasing them back into the wild. After

getting 192 in the last six weeks, 86 were delivered on Sunday, the

biggest rescue since the BP rig exploded on April 20, spewing oil

into the Gulf of Mexico.

"We did have someone faint today because of the heat," said

Jay Holcomb, executive director of the International Bird Rescue

Research Center.

A table is lined with tubs, bottles and even a microwave. In the

tub an enormous pelican, turned almost black by the oil, sits

stoically as workers pour a light vegetable oil over it. A process

they humorously refer to as marinating, which has to be done before

the birds can be washed.

"They respond really well to the cleaning," said Heather

Nevill, the veterinarian overseeing the process. "If we get them

in time."

At Barataria Bay, La., just west of the mouth of the Mississippi

River, large patches of thick oil floated in the still waters

Monday. A dead sea turtle caked in brownish-red oil lay splayed out

with dragonflies buzzing by.

The Barataria estuary, which has become one of the hardest-hit

areas, was busy with shrimp boats skimming up oil and officials in

boats and helicopters patrolling the islands and bays to assess the

state of wildlife and the movement of oil.

On remote islands, oil visibly tainted pelicans, gulls, terns

and herons.

President Barack Obama sought to reassure Americans by saying

that "we will get through this crisis" but that it would take

dedication.

Later, he said he's been talking closely with Gulf Coast

fishermen and various experts on BP's catastrophic oil spill and

not for lofty academic reasons.

"I talk to these folks because they potentially have the best

answers - so I know whose ass to kick," the president said.

The salty words, part of Obama's recent efforts to telegraph to

Americans his engagement with the crisis, came in an interview in

Michigan with NBC's "Today" show.

"This will be contained," Obama said earlier. "It may take

some time, and it's going to take a whole lot of effort. There is

going to be damage done to the Gulf Coast, and there is going to be

economic damages that we've got to make sure BP is responsible for

and compensates people for."

Obama's prediction of further damage only exacerbated a sense of

dread filling residents in places the oil had yet to foul, like

Panama City Beach.

"It just makes me sick to my stomach to think about one morning

I could wake up and our beaches would be ruined," said Joseph

Carrington, a 39-year-old worker at a scooter rental service who

moved five years ago from Chester, N.Y., out of love for the beach.

"I have nightmares thinking about it on what it would do to us,

my job, all of our jobs."