GRAND ISLE, La. —This seven-mile squiggle of homey rentals and streets with names like "Redfish" and "Speckled Trout" had wrung hope for weeks from a single belief: Oil would land somewhere else.
But on Friday, oil the color and consistency of brownie dough began tarnishing the shore of Grand Isle — a tourist town of 1,500 that draws its livelihood from thousands of weekend visitors.
The dark ooze — the first direct oil hit from the massive gulf oil spill on a populated, popular shoreline — deepened anger and anxiety among those in Louisiana as the slick looms offshore with no containment in sight.
Suddenly, in Grand Isle, the oil disaster shifted from "out there" to "here." No one could pretend anymore. "This could kill Grand Isle for years to come," fretted Mayor Pro Tem Jay LaFont.
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With more black waves churning offshore, the town was forced to close its beach. So far, roughly 40 miles of coastal Louisiana has been contaminated. But a change in wind or tides could hasten more damage.
In Plaquemines Parish, the mood in the past couple of days has been "very discouraging, extremely discouraging," said Charles Collins, 68, a veteran crew boat captain who works out of Venice, La., near the mouth of the Mississippi River.
After weeks of waiting and watching the oil offshore, the slick invaded patches of marshlands this week. "Once it gets in the marsh it's impossible to get out," Collins said. "All your shrimp are born in the marsh. All your plankton. The marsh is like the beginning of life in the sea. And it's in the marshes. Bad."
Locals have also begun to worry about hurricane season, which begins June 1. How far could a big storm surge push the oil inland? What booms could stop that kind of force? "I don't think in the United States of America people understand the magnitude of what this could do," Collins said.
BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said during a Friday flight with Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, that he didn't see any oil near the Alabama, Mississippi or Florida coastlines. Calm weather has allowed crews to continue skimming and burning operations in recent days. BP is staging equipment to attempt a "top kill" procedure early next week to plug the blown-out well with heavy drilling mud.
But the oil hits this week have increased public outcry. Local officials in Louisiana lambasted BP for failing to deploy enough boom before the oil sloshed ashore.
"We knew it was a matter of time," said LaFont, a former Exxon employee. "We had nothing but time and BP did nothing but waste it."
At a Friday news briefing, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said "we were a little disappointed in the work in Terrebonne Parish.... We definitely had discussions with both BP and Coast Guard." But she said cleanup work elsewhere seemed to be going well.
Federal officials say they have found a handful of animals injured by the oil but countless others may be feeling the effects.
Ralph Morgenweck of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says many animals that have died will never be found. And others could be affected in less tangible ways, such as complications from inhaling the fumes.
Authorities say they have recovered 186 sea turtles and more than 60 birds they think may have been affected by the spill. All but a few of the sea turtles were found dead, as were 43 of the birds. They also say 18 dolphins were stranded on shore since the spill. None had oil on their skin.
Federal officials warned that as the oil spill hits the shoreline the effects will be much more visible.
Meanwhile, 48 miles offshore and nearly a mile below the gulf surface, BP continued to capture some of the oil billowing from a broken pipe, drawing it into a tube system that is carrying it to a processing ship.
Independent scientists analyzing video of the leak have said the flow rate is more like 70,000 barrels a day. But Suttles stood by the 5,000-barrel-a-day figure. "At the moment that's our best estimate," he said, though he conceded that "there's a huge amount of uncertainty around that and it could have a fairly wide range."
In another matter, Suttles said his company had been unable to identify alternatives to the oil dispersants that the Environmental Protection Agency has ordered BP to stop using. "There were not any other dispersants that we could yet identify that were available that were less toxic," Suttles said.
He added that BP was continuing to look for other dispersants in the wake of EPA's directive that it apply less toxic kinds to break up the spill.
In Washington, President Obama on Friday appointed a bipartisan panel to figure out the root causes of the disaster. Former Florida governor and senator Bob Graham will join former EPA director William K. Reilly as co-chair of the commission, charged with studying how better regulation could stop accidents like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.