The greatest lesson (I hope) Florida has learned is that "unthinkable" disasters should not only be thought about quite a bit but also prepared for in advance. The BP gulf oil spill disaster was unexpected even by the experts whose response teams were ready for oil spills from laden tankers or storage facilities on land. But they never anticipated a massive, multimonth leak from a well deep under the Gulf of Mexico.
In some ways, this was Florida's 9/11.
As Florida's population grows and economic demands soar, the state becomes more vulnerable to disasters if only because we demand more and more from limited resources. We want more gasoline at cheap prices, so we drill deeper at greater peril. Judging by recent state polls, many residents here still favor drilling near Florida coasts despite this summer's economic and ecological nightmare.
We want more electricity for all those gadgets, air conditioning and those coming electric vehicles, so we plan more nuclear power plants with their potential for higher risks. We still use freshwater recklessly even with the threat of saltwater intruding inland from the coasts. And we still cluster vulnerable homes and office towers along Florida coastlines, praying a Category 5 hurricane will smack somebody else.
Even though the immediate BP oil spill crisis is over— the leak was plugged July 15 — its impact will be assessed for years. Those more cynical of human behavior suggest, now that the spill is plugged, BP's blunders will fade quickly from the minds of many and from the front pages of newspapers as fresher crises loom.
Floridians, let's wise up. After 114 days since the spill began, there are lessons to be learned from the BP fiasco. The lessons can be gleaned from the feedback this past week from Florida tourism leaders, bankers, economic development officials, lawyers, environmentalists, regulators, marine scientists and even BP.
Lesson One: The BP spill proved a dramatic reminder that, for all of the talk and ambitions to diversify the state economy, Florida and its international image remain inextricably tied to tourism.
"Florida has a very strong awareness in the world's eye and our perception, right or wrong, is being negatively impacted," says Stuart Rogel, CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership. "People think there is oil all over our beaches from Pensacola to Jacksonville. That impacts our tourism business and awareness of our brand."
Tourism and agriculture are the "800-pound gorillas of Florida," says Florida banker David Dunbar, regional CEO of Synovus Bank in St. Petersburg. "Even though we stay focused on bringing new service and manufacturing industries to Florida through economic development activities, we cannot afford to hurt either of these two giants."
D.T. Minich, tourism chief at Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater, puts it more bluntly. "It's time the travel industry took off the nice-guy gloves and claimed a greater stake in Florida's economic and political spheres."
Lesson Two: We really have no idea yet what the effects of the spill and remaining oil will be on the gulf water, the web of marine life, the seafood chain (and seafood and fishing industries), and the beaches and shorelines. Both BP and the states are responsible for helping figure out how extensively the disaster damaged the environment. That has ongoing implications for Florida's brand if the next wave of global news says the Gulf Coast has suffered irreparably.
Lesson Three: BP is just one company. While many times bigger than any corporation in Florida, it is not a bottomless cash machine. It cannot make endless restitution even if the company was liquidated for all it's worth.
Legally, BP needs a punishment for its apparent negligence. Yes, it's set up an independent $20 billion fund for claims, but that's not enough given the magnitude and lack of clarity of this mess so far. The state of Florida itself may send BP a claim for more than $1 billion to close a budget gap because the oil spill slashed tax receipts from tourism. Do not let BP, for all its massive public relations and advertising campaigns, prematurely off the hook for its responsibility.
"BP's promise to 'make things right' appears to be all PR for the damage done to the world's perception of Florida's pristine beaches, which was very seriously damaged," says Tim Bogott, CEO of St. Pete Beach's Tradewinds Island Resorts. "BP should be held accountable for both the damage done and the repair of that perception."
Lesson Four. Snap the federal regulators of oil drilling out of their stupors and improve oversight of the industry. Only a few years ago we learned federal officials at the Minerals Management Service in charge of handling billions of dollars in oil royalties were sleeping with employees of the energy companies they regulate. That's not the close oversight I had in mind.
"If there is potential for hazards or natural disasters, the local and federal governments should be more careful with their planning," argues Frank Ghannadian, University of Tampa business school dean. "I do not mean to limit offshore drilling, which we need, but to regulate and monitor it more vigorously."
The good news, Heritage Foundation analyst James Carifano recently pointed out, is that dealing with the BP oil spill was a valuable lesson. "If against all odds something did happen now, the Coast Guard and the drilling industry have just finished a Ph.D. in oil response and have never had more capacity and expertise to deal with such a disaster," he said.
Lesson Five: Stop federal and state dithering on alternative energy policies and encourage other ways to produce energy. The BP spill should shame Gov. Crist for abandoning his early support of alternative energy projects in Florida.
"We will have missed the point unless the lesson from the gulf oil spill is that the way we create and consume energy is simply unsustainable," says Susan Glickman, director of the Florida Business Network for a Clean Energy Economy in Indian Rocks Beach.
Lesson Six: Manage major disasters military style with a clear sense of who is in charge. Each state and locality had different concerns about the spill while competing for resources from BP and from the federal government. For Florida it was tourism, but for Louisiana it was the fishing industry and the environment. The Coast Guard often was caught in the middle of intergovernmental disputes.
It was not until President Barack Obama met and encouraged retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen to proceed with a military command-and-control oversight that the disaster's oversight came together.
If there's a final lesson here, it is the need for perseverance. Don't forget what's happened. We're still in Act 1 of the BP oil spill play.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com.