Oil Spill Looms, Florida Girds for Response
While emergency responders girded for an expected landfall of oil on Florida’s coastline within the next few days, political figures mapped out plans and threw a little mud as frustration mounts over what has become the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.
Oil sheen and heavy tar ball concentrations were reported Wednesday morning in state waters 10 miles off the coast of Pensacola. Florida’s top emergency manager said his agency is gearing up for “a siege” brought on by an oil spill that as of Wednesday evening will close more than a third of the exclusive economic zone region in the Gulf from commercial and recreational fishing.
“For five weeks we have been very fortunate,“ David Halstead, director of the Division of Emergency Management, told members of the state’s disaster management team at a briefing Wednesday.
“Those fortunes have changed now. It’s time for us to put our game face on.”
The state of Florida is ramping up reconnaissance efforts, deploying more boom and preparing to conduct coastal cleanup, preparing for landfall as early as Friday. With weather conditions expected to deteriorate over the next several days, preparations are underway for more extensive shoreline clean up.
“The good news is this is something that we have been working on for four or five weeks now,” said Michael Sole, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. “I think we are prepared. We’ve got the resources and assets on the ground ready to react to any Florida impact.”
More than 257,000 feet of oil-collecting boom has already been deployed. Another 66,000 feet was being readied.
In addition, skimmers have been dispatched to collect oil and tar bars within 10 miles of the state shoreline.
Gov. Charlie Crist traveled to the Panhandle on Wednesday to get another first-hand look at preparations there.
“I want Floridians to know that we are watchful, that we are monitoring the situation,” Crist told reporters in Tallahassee. “We understand what is happening and are doing everything we can to protect our beautiful state.”
Crist and other officials are continuing to spread the word that as of Wednesday afternoon all of Florida’s beaches were open and oil free. Florida just launched a massive advertising campaign to lure tourists to the state’s sun-baked shores.
Fueled in large part by $25 million in BP cash, the state’s ad campaign will be modified as circumstances require to walk the fine line of providing accurate information to travelers while not giving Florida’s $65 billion a year tourism industry an unnecessary black eye.
“Obviously, you have to have truth in advertising,” Crist said. “We want to make sure it if does come on our shore that we redirect the message… so that it is accurate and discusses where it is and, maybe more importantly, where it is not.”
FLORIDA LEADERS ASK FOR FEDS, BP TO STEP UP HELP
The impending landfall sent Florida officials looking toward Washington and London for assistance.
Crist sent a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke asking the agency to provide disaster relief to Florida commercial fishers, charter boat captains and others who make their living on the water. The governor is asking Locke to declare that the region’s fishing industry faces collapse in the midst of the spill itself and the media coverage of the spill that he says has reduced demand for Gulf caught seafood.
“I will continue to hold British Petroleum fully accountable to the people of Florida for this devastating spill,” Crist wrote. “However, Florida needs your help and that of Congress to ensure that every possible safety net is in place for our fishing industries and communities.”
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, again called on the Obama Administration to put the full U.S. military in charge of oil spill oversight, saying the Coast Guard is not equipped to handle a naval operation now covering 88,522 square miles.
Florida Bankers Association president Alex Sanchez also went straight to the top, calling on federal banking regulators to provide more leniency on loans to troubled Gulf business and President Obama for more action.
“The oils spill sadly is becoming a political issue,” Sanchez said in a letter to Obama. “It should be an issue about protecting our country's Gulf region and its people. Mr. President, we need real, strong and decisive leadership to resolve this disaster NOW. Not tomorrow, not next week, we need it now Sir!”
Meanwhile, other officials are looking toward the “responsible party” for additional assistance.
“Tony Hayward, his company British Petroleum, and his oil are projected to violate the pristine beaches and crystal clear ocean water of northwest Florida— and I expect him to be in Pensacola to see the firsthand the damage his oil is causing,” CFO Alex Sink said in a statement to the BP CEO Wednesday.
“We need everything your huge, multibillion dollar corporation can afford including a visible, high-level presence of BP executives to be on-site and accountable to Floridians,” Sink said.