Panhandle Businesses Bracing for Oil Spill

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's Gulf Coast towns are bracing for lost business as state officials predict oil from the explosion on a BP oil rig off the Louisiana coast last month could make landfall by Wednesday.

“I'm looking at maybe no business for the rest of 2010,” said John Rivers, of Gulf Breeze, who owns a charter fishing boat business. “And if the oil affects the breeding grounds there may not be anything next year at all. I'm looking for work.”

Rivers, who has run Mega-Bite Inshore Charters for six years, said almost all of his bookings for June have canceled because of the publicity surrounding the spill.

Florida emergency operations officials said the oil may hit the shores of Florida’s western Panhandle by Wednesday depending on the ocean currents.

BP, which has been unable to contain the spill thus far, is expected to try another method that involves placing a dome over the well. That containment method has been used in other spills; however, it has never been used on a well in 5,000 feet of water. If the dome containment process fails, the next step would be to drill a relief well to redirect the oil. That process could take two to three months, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole said Monday.

“We do really need to get this discharge to stop,” he said. “They need to plug the hole.”

Gov. Charlie Crist originally declared a state of emergency for Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay and Gulf counties but extended it Monday morning to include 13 more counties as far south as Sarasota County. As much as 770 miles of Gulf front property could be affected by the spill.

The impact could be devastating – and wide-reaching.

“It can affect everything in an economy that is strongly based on tourism or fisheries,” said Stephen Holland, professor of tourism, recreation and sport management at the University of Florida.

Florida fisheries have not yet been directly affected by the spill in a physical sense. Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said in a statement Monday that seafood currently being harvested is safe to eat. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is restricting commercial and recreational fishing in federal waters from Louisiana to an area off Pensacola Bay, but that ban does not yet impact waters extended out 25 miles from Escambia County.

State officials said there is the potential for additional closures, though, and that the state is working with federal partners to determine how and when to make that decision.

Holland said in some ways, the spill is like a strong rip tide in that it may keep people out of the water for a while. But a rip tide usually goes away after a few days, whereas the effects of the spill could last for weeks, or even months. It would be natural he said, for people to change vacation plans out of concern, thus creating an impact on local hotels and restaurants.

“They could choose to drive to Hilton Head or Myrtle Beach in the Carolinas instead of coming to the Panhandle,” he said.

Pensacola Convention and Visitors Bureau spokeswoman Laura Lee said that the visitors bureau is getting lots of phone calls from people worried about Memorial Day weekend or summer vacation plans. Pensacola officials, she said, are hoping that many tourists will still come to see the historic downtown and the air museum. But the beach is still what draws many visitors to the area, she said.

“Our beaches are the number one attraction here, so it would hurt us greatly,” said Lee.

Dave Rauschkolb, a Seaside restaurateur who also organized February's “Hands Across the Sand" beach protest against legislative efforts to open Florida's Gulf waters to drilling, said most Panhandle businesses don't seem to have suffered an immediate decline stemming from the spill in Louisiana, but most are anxious.

"I think anybody who lives up or down the Gulf coast is afraid of this oil spill,” Rauschkolb said.

– News Service of Florida reporters Michael Peltier and John Kennedy contributed to this report.

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