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Hernando County prepares oil spill response as tourism officials counter images 'Florida is closed'

BROOKSVILLE — Usually at this time of the year, Hernando's emergency response teams are getting out the hurricane plan in preparation for the start of the season next month.

Not this year.

Instead, they are using that plan and other emergency guides, as well as detailed information from the Coast Guard, to cobble together a response plan for the oil spill spreading in the gulf if it approaches Hernando's fragile coastline.

The development of that plan and close monitoring of the progress of the oil and the response elsewhere has been occupying Frank DeFrancesco's time in recent days. He heads up the county's team for hazardous materials, and that is what the spill, caused by BP's exploded oil platform the Deepwater Horizon, is considered.

Across Hernando County, officials and those with economic and environmental interests that revolve around the coastline are watching, waiting and planning for what might come in the days and weeks ahead.

DeFrancesco's work on an oil spill response plan borrows heavily from the detailed Coast Guard plans. The agency even provides a plan for volunteers including forms for volunteers to assess the level of oil contamination that has come ashore.

The documents describe the difference between a film of oil and oil stain and a coating of oil. They provide a volunteer shoreline assessment checklist where they can list what they found: tar balls, patties or mousse.

When DeFrancesco is done, the county's plan will describe how it will use booms to block the oil, how they will sample and the structure of a command system.

"We're not recreating the wheel,'' he said.

County departments that might need to be involved in the preparation have also been contacted. For example, risk management was told to document the current condition of any county-owned properties along the coast. BP has promised reimbursement for damages and such "before" pictures are going to be needed to make a claim.

The county's waterfront property owners will also need to do the same thing and details of how that should work will be provided when the involved agencies release a media packet in the coming days, DeFrancesco said.

Officials are also considering instructing boat owners along the coast to remove their boats from the water if the oil threatens. Chuck Morton, the chairman of the Port Authority and a waterfront boat owner, said it only makes sense to remove boats from the water now that they aren't going to be used for awhile.

Plans are already in the works to cordon off an area on Jenkins Creek, if needed, to provide a place for any manatees, dolphins or turtles that might need medical attention. "We can block Jenkins Creek pretty effectively,'' Morton said.

Also the owner of hotel units on the water, he said he has not seen anyone cancel bookings because of the spill. Morton was also confident that, even if the coast sees some impact, the push of the springs will keep the Weeki Wachee River open for recreation and tourists by preventing oil from coming into the river.

While others are working to plan the county's response if oil approaches, Sue Rupe, the county's tourism development coordinator, was working just as hard to get the word out that no oil is here now and Hernando is still an attractive destination.

Government Broadcasting is filming new footage along the coastline to post on the county tourism website. There is also discussion about adding real-time web cameras to some locations to show that popular tourist activities are still ongoing along Hernando's shoreline.

The intention is to counter graphic images of the oil spill that may telegraph to potential visitors that "Florida is closed,'' Rupe said.

She recently surveyed charter boat companies and hotels and found that one hotel reported the least business since 2007. A charter operator worried the spill could take a chunk out of his business this year.

Aware that BP will be accepting claims for damages, Rupe said she will be reminding hotel owners to keep track if anyone cancels on their reservations. She also was sending out an e-mail to boat charter firms late Wednesday reminding them to do the same.

Rupe said the timing of the emergency couldn't be any worse.

Not only are the popular scallop and tarpon seasons approaching but the economy has already pushed some businesses to the brink.

"This is just another hit,'' she said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando County prepares oil spill response as tourism officials counter images 'Florida is closed' 05/05/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 5, 2010 7:47pm]

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