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A year after BP oil spill, Panhandle towns seeing signs of recovery

BP contract workers look through seaweed along the shore in Pensacola Beach on June 7, 2010. Much of the goop has been skimmed from the water and plucked from the sand.

Miami Herald

BP contract workers look through seaweed along the shore in Pensacola Beach on June 7, 2010. Much of the goop has been skimmed from the water and plucked from the sand.

ATVs still rumble across the 8-mile stretch of Pensacola Beach each morning, driven by workers looking for tar balls.

One year after crude from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion reached Florida's shores, cleanup crews are still unearthing the sticky, hardened bits of oil.

"They're about the size of your fingernail," said Buck Lee, a lifelong Pensacola native and executive director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority, which oversees beach projects.

While the oil rig exploded on April 20, 2010, it wasn't until June 4, a month and a half later, that tar patties made landfall in Pensacola. The plumes of oil sheen slowly drifted across nearly 200 miles of the Panhandle's beaches — from quaint beach towns of Watercolor and Seaside in Walton County to the spring break metropolis of Panama City Beach.

Though much of the goop has been skimmed from the water and plucked from the sand, the region is still paying the price of one of the nation's most devastating oil spills.

Workers and mechanical sifting machines continue to remove unsightly tar ball specks from the Panhandle's beaches, many business owners are still fighting to recoup lost profits from BP and the future impact on the rest of the economy and environment may take years to truly learn.

For now, there's some positive news: Visitors are returning to the Panhandle beaches in record numbers and spending at hotels and storefronts that were hurting for cash last summer.

"What a year it's been," said Lee, who spent the past year in countless conference calls and meetings with BP and federal officials. "Its been terrible, but things are finally looking up."

• • •

At the Paradise Inn, a quaint one-story hotel on Pensacola Beach, rooms have been selling out since Memorial Day weekend.

"We're kicking butt and taking names later," said Kris Hedlund, a front desk clerk at the inn that boasts of having "old Florida charm."

Last summer, the phones hardly rang at the 56-room hotel. This year, rooms are being sold out three to four weeks in advance, Hedlund said.

Lee, with the Santa Rosa Island Authority, which is funded through hotel and sales taxes on the beach, said that sales during the spring break season of March, April and May were up from 30 to 50 percent compared with the same period in 2009, even before the oil spill last year.

"We knew once the beach was clean, and people knew the gulf was safe, the people would come back, and they sure did," Lee said, noting that based on toll receipts, 10,000 more vehicles entered Pensacola Beach for the Memorial Day weekend than last year.

While Visit Florida, the state's tourism agency, has not pegged an exact dollar figure for losses related to the spill, last summer many Panhandle hotels and restaurants reported seeing sales down by 50 percent in the peak summer months.

"It's very hard to have a solid statistical number," said Carol Dover, chief executive of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. "The bed tax numbers may show that we weren't down as much as we said, but that doesn't take into account the fact that so many BP workers stayed in the Panhandle, and weren't paying full prices at the hotel, or weren't shopping at the souvenir shops, or eating out at the restaurants or renting watercrafts."

BP gave the state $25 million to fund an "Our Coast Is Clear" advertising campaign. The money was used for digital billboards and TV commercials in key markets like Atlanta and New York. But the state has since changed gears on its advertising approach.

"As the calendar year turned, we put the oil spill to bed," said Chris Thompson, CEO of Visit Florida. "As far as marketing the state, we're getting back to our regular advertising. The Florida brand is a strong brand, it's very resilient. Once we get them here, they will come back."

• • •

Out on the Gulf Coast's emerald waters, state scientists and university researchers scoop up containers of seawater weekly, testing for signs of oil residue. The results have mostly yielded clean water for the past six months — nothing as dire as June and July of last year, when some Panhandle counties were forced to post signs at beach entrances warning visitors to stay out of the oil-contaminated water.

Still, researchers say they've struggled having a baseline to compare their current findings, because so few studies have been conducted in the Gulf Coast in previous years.

"We know less about the Gulf of Mexico than we do about certain parts of the moon," said Richard Pierce, director of the Center for Ecotoxicology at Mote Marine Laboratory, a Sarasota-based research center.

"It could be another three years before we have some definitive answers about the environmental impacts," Pierce said. "What is ahead is a tremendous amount of research and monitoring."

BP has pledged $500 million toward sponsoring research projects throughout the Gulf Coast states of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

So far, some initial findings in Florida show fish with lesions and discolorations, and oil found buried 6 to 12 inches beneath the sand in many locations.

"The oil has been finely dispersed, but we don't know yet if it poses a hazard," Pierce said. "It has to be observed over time."

• • •

BP knows it is persona non grata in the beachside communities of the Panhandle, where the oil giant's environmental disaster unleashed an economic disaster for local businesses and residents who make their living on the water or by staffing the hotels and restaurants frequented by tourists.

The company has tried to establish goodwill by doling out grants to local volunteer groups and keeping some 200 residents on the payroll in Florida by hiring them for beach cleanups and community outreach.

They also point to a brick-and-mortar office near Fort Walton Beach as proof that they're willing to stick around.

"We're committed to staying here, however long it takes," said Craig Savage, spokesman for BP's Florida efforts.

Since June 2010, the oil firm has paid close to $1.9 billion in Florida, with the bulk of that money— $1.7 billion — used to compensate business owners and employees who have been able to prove spill-related financial losses. BP set aside $20 billion to pay claims, which are being reviewed by the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. It's headed by Kenneth Feinberg, who managed the agency that handled claims for Sept. 11, 2001, victims.

Some business owners say the money is only a fraction of what they would have made in a regular season, and comes after "brow beating" claims officials for a response.

"It's frustrating," said Grover Robinson IV, an Escambia County commissioner whose real estate business has seen dwindling numbers on beachfront properties. "There are still people who have not received their claims, and a lot of people may never see a dime."

• • •

Local officials say that much more could have been accomplished in the way of cleanup efforts, if BP and federal agencies would have let local governments head up some of the plans. Instead, they often found themselves navigating through the hodgepodge of state and federal agencies, along with BP officials calling the shots from the Unified Command centers in Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans

"Next time, God forbid anything like this happens again, the federal agencies should let us as the local governments handle it," Lee said. "We know what do after a hurricane, we know how to activate quickly after an emergency … and we care more about what's impacting our beaches than someone sitting in some office in New Orleans."

A year after BP oil spill, Panhandle towns seeing signs of recovery 06/04/11 [Last modified: Sunday, June 5, 2011 10:43pm]
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