ST. PETERSBURG — They came by the hundreds, packing the Palladium Theater until it was at capacity. Outside, dozens more waited, trying to get a seat.
The gathering felt like a college lecture or academic conference, but the audience Tuesday at the downtown facility wasn't made up of students or industry insiders.
Instead, about 950 people from all over the Tampa Bay area came together for a community forum on one thing: the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"It hasn't stopped," said Brenda Archer, 58. "We want to know why."
Archer, a high school English teacher, and her husband, David, drove from Tampa for the three-hour event, which featured three panels of experts.
The audience got an overview on how the spill happened, the media's perspective and possible solutions.
"It's almost hard to get your hands around it," Archer said.
Chuanmin Hu, an oceanography professor at the University of South Florida who has helped coordinate some of the school's research trips into the gulf, assured the audience that for the short term, at least, the oil does not appear to be a threat to this region.
But the problems aren't over, he and other panelists said.
"We are extremely concerned about the future," said Bill Hogarth, dean of the USF College of Marine Science. "Bottom line is, there is subsurface oil."
The college's next focus is to study the effects on the food chain, he said.
"This isn't a sprint," said fellow panelist Laurie MacDonald of Defenders of Wildlife. "This is a marathon of work that will go on for a long time."
Even those who have been watching the situation closely were surprised by some of the things they learned.
Dawn and Bobby Aylesworth of St. Petersburg, who have a family wholesale fishing bait distribution business, said they were struck by the magnitude of the spill and its long-term impact.
They heard during the forum from D.T. Minich, executive director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, who said that hotel and restaurant bookings in Pinellas have already dropped 20 to 30 percent.
Tourism is a $6 billion industry for the county, Minich said.
"It was quite a shock," Bobby Aylesworth said. "We're very concerned about this."
In between panels, the audience watched President Barack Obama's live address to the nation about the spill.
They cheered when the president talked about the need for the nation to change its energy habits.
"It's not going to be easy," panelist David Friedman, research director for the Clean Vehicles Program, told the crowd afterward.
Still, some said they hope the forum will spark a new commitment from the public about environmental issues.
"The attention span of the public can be pretty short. … It took a disaster like this to get people active, and that's too bad," said Kim Kandz, who along with her husband is active in St. Petersburg Audubon. "Let's see what kind of action comes of this."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8643.