HERNANDO BEACH — Oil-covered beaches, catastrophic loss of wildlife, widespread illnesses from air and water-borne toxins.
That's the grim picture that noted marine biologist, author and environmental activist Riki Ott painted of what life might look like should the Deepwater Horizon oil spill encroach upon the wetlands surrounding Hernando Beach.
Speaking to a lunchtime gathering of about 60 residents, commercial fishermen and business owners at the R Beach restaurant, Ott warned that should the area be hit by such a disaster, the better prepared they can be beforehand the better off they will be afterward.
"The truth is, your future will pretty much be in your own hands," Ott said. "There are people who will promise they're going to make things all right. Don't believe it."
Ott should know. In 1989, she was a commercial fisherman working the waters off Prince William Sound in Alaska when the Exxon Valdez ran aground, spilling 250,000 barrels of oil into the pristine marine habitat. Ott claims Exxon never kept its promises to thoroughly mitigate the damage, and in fact, spent more than 20 years dragging litigating victims through the courts.
Ott, who has spent the past several weeks speaking to residents along the Gulf Coast, was invited to speak to Hernando Beach residents by Kathryn Birren, owner of five fishing boats and the Hernando Beach Seafood wholesale/retail seafood business, and who, along with state representative candidate Diane Rowden, has been helping organize commercial fisherman whose businesses have been threatened by the spill.
"We're all scared," Birren told the crowd. "We need to tell people how we feel about this."
Ott warned the audience that they need to act to protect themselves from being "duped" by representatives of British Petroleum, which owned the Deepwater Horizon rig.
"When you hear them say, 'We're going to honor all reasonable claims', that means, 'We'll see you in court,' '' Ott said.
Ott, who also spoke earlier in the day at a emergency management workshop, advised residents to consider forming their own community interest group similar to the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council, which formed following the Exxon Valdez spill. The group has become instrumental in influencing environmental policy in regards to oil and mineral operations in the region.
Earlier Wednesday, about 60 people, most of them commercial fisherman, attended the county-sponsored workshop to learn more about the claims process and who to contact for help in filing forms.
One of the more popular questions, Hernando County's Emergency Management director Cecilia Patella said, was whether to contact a lawyer to help with filing a claim.
"We're encouraging people to take their time and find out as much information as possible before they act," Patella said. "That will save them from making mistakes that could cost them in the future."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.