Clumps of oil washed up on Pensacola Beach yesterday, as the state braced for damage to its tourism and fishing industries from the BP Plc oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
About 120 people were working to clean up “hundreds, maybe thousands” of tar balls and “tar mats,” flat clumps of oil as long as one foot (30 centimeters), that came ashore overnight, Daniel Akerman, a spokesman for Florida’s Escambia County, said in an interview. He called the impact minor and said the beach remained open.
Florida officials and tourism industry executives were juggling two missions, working to protect the shore from oil while assuring tourists that the state’s 825 miles (1,327 kilometers) of beaches remained safe so far. The WaterColor Inn and Resort in Santa Rosa Beach relaxed its cancellation policies for wary guests while updating photos on its website to show beaches that remained pristine.
“For the most part, people are still booking but obviously have lots of questions,” Jennifer Williams, director of sales and marketing for the resort, said in an interview. “Honestly, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Florida draws about 80 million visitors a year, bringing in $60 billion and making tourism the state’s No. 1 industry, according to Kathy Torian, spokeswoman for Florida’s tourism office in Tallahassee. Tourism accounts for almost one-quarter of the state’s sales-tax revenue, she said.
Of Florida’s 19 million residents, almost 1 million work in tourism, Torian said.
John Gerseth, 43, a part-time plumber interviewed in Pensacola Beach in the Panhandle area of northwest Florida, said “businesses out here are totally freaking out.”
“Tourism is how we make our living,” he said in an interview. “If that’s gone, it’s all over.”
Gerseth said he grew up in the area, and he and his wife saved money to move back from Las Vegas in 2007.
“The reason people come out here and forgo careers is so they can enjoy the beach,” he said. “I’m a surfer, I’m a boater -- now that all may be gone.”
Escambia County, which includes Pensacola and Pensacola Beach, has committed $3 million for the cleanup so far, said Grover Robinson, county commission chairman, at a news conference yesterday. The county is seeking reimbursement from a $25 million state fund provided by BP.
Workers are picking up tar balls with shovels and gloves, and most beaches in the area remain clean for now, he said. The county is making cleanup recommendations to BP where it sees fit, he said.
“We have expertise here, we know how to clean up beaches
-- we do it 365 days a year,” Robinson said. “There are times when Escambia County has more experience than BP on some of these things.”
Business was already down about 80 percent at Pensacola’s Scuba Shack, the oldest and largest scuba-dive operator in the city, said Eilene Beard, a co-owner of the 29-year-old company.
She received an initial payment from BP of $5,000 for lost business, and now has to compile three years of business-tax paperwork and monthly revenue reports to submit in an effort to get additional money.
Chartered by BP
Scuba Shack had just spent more than $20,000 on a new roof for its store, repairs on its 50-foot boat and equipment refurbishing in preparation for peak season, she said.
The Scuba Shack’s boat, the Wet Dream, has been chartered by BP for oil observation in the Gulf since May 28 “and we haven’t sent out any divers since,” said Beard, 61, who was born in Pensacola.
The boat’s crew has spotted hundreds of golfball-sized oil blobs about 8 miles from the shore of Pensacola, Beard said.
U.S. Representative Kathy Castor, a Democrat from the state, met June 3 with hotel owners, business owners, fishermen and environmentalists in St. Petersburg in west central Florida.
“There’s tremendous anxiety,” she said in an interview. A “very big topic” of the discussion was what London-based BP should do to help, Castor said. BP has said it will have a representative in Florida to help fishermen and others affected by the spill with their claims, she said.