Triumphing After a Tragedy
Northwest Florida finds a silver lining in the tragedy that was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill
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Ashton Hayward was campaigning for mayor of Pensacola in 2010 when the Gulf of Mexico fell victim to an environmental disaster that would have a major and long-lasting impact on Florida, its environment and economy.
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Escambia is among eight Florida counties judged to have been “directly impacted” by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Economic damages totaling $2 billion have been awarded to Florida. Much of Pensacola Beach’s white sand was covered in oil in June 2010.
“I was on the beach, sitting out in front of Margaritaville, giving a radio interview and watching tar balls coming up on the beach,” remembers the Pensacola native of the days following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. “I was thinking, ‘This is not happening.’ ”
The 4.9 million gallons of crude oil that gushed from a broken pipe became the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history, sending tar balls onto Gulf beaches and into bayous. The oil gushed unfettered for more than three months. Ultimately, the spill had a multi-billion-dollar adverse impact on Northwest Florida’s economy. The 2010 tourism season ground to a halt before it even had a chance to start, and the region’s tourist tax collections alone that year dropped by nearly 50 percent.
“I realized that economically this would be a big deal, how it could basically cripple Pensacola immediately,” says Hayward, who won that election, is still mayor and cannot shake the images of that day from his mind. “Our natural resources are a jewel, and when you see oil washing up on the shore, you know that’s not good.”
Lawsuits flew fast and furious. States wanted BP, which had been leasing the rig, to pay for cleaning up the environment. Businesses that faced a full tourist season of lost revenues wanted reimbursement. And the state of Florida wanted an infusion of dollars to bolster an economy that had taken a shellacking.
“The timing couldn’t have been worse,” laments Allan Bense, a former state House Speaker from Panama City. “Every time you turned on the TV you’d see oil coming out of that pipe. It delayed our recovery from the recession a couple of years.”
In 2012, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi joined with attorney generals from the four other affected Gulf Coast states to sue British Petrolem. In 2015, the lawsuit was settled, resulting in BP agreeing to pay $18.5 billion to the affected states, including $2 billion to spark Florida’s economy.
In April, a federal judge took the last step that will now get the economic damages flowing. By state law, 75 percent of that total, or $1.5 billion, over the next 30 years will be directed to programs in the eight counties hardest hit by the oil spill — Wakulla, Franklin, Gulf, Bay, Walton, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Escambia — all in Northwest Florida. The money, above and separate from the Restore Act funds appropriated by Congress to local governments and apart from individual and business claims against BP, will be used to promote economic recovery and diversity in the region.
The first installment — $300 million — will sit in a reserve fund until the Legislature convenes in 2017 and can formally designate where it goes. That’s when the five-person board that is Triumph Gulf Coast will officially spring to life, using the BP dollars to begin a revitalization of and the much needed diversification of the Emerald Coast’s economy.
“This is a huge win that came out of a horrific accident,” says Hayward. “We’ll have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get it right.”
The oil and its immediate after effects were a wake-up call for many in the region. To state Sen. Don Gaetz, whose legislative district includes Bay, Okaloosa and Walton counties, it clearly demonstrated how easily the the area could be brought to its economic knees.
“When the oil spill occurred, I didn’t know what to make of it,” admits Gaetz, who lives in Niceville. “I didn’t understand the immense impact it would have. What struck me was how the oil spill demonstrated how fragile the Northwest Florida economy is.
“Northwest Florida is basically a two-trick pony when it comes to economic strength and sustainability. We have the military, and all the industries associated with the military presence, and tourism and hospitality. But we all know that when the Pentagon gets the sniffles, Northwest Florida can get pneumonia. And when something happens in the Gulf, our tourism and hospitality industry is brought to its knees.”