BROOKSVILLE — From the noisy vantage point in a C-130 aircraft, Hernando County's top safety officials on Thursday got a firsthand look at the environmental disaster lurking in the distance.
Flying with the Coast Guard, whose daily mission is to track the toxic oil slick spreading from the site of the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig, Sheriff Richard Nugent was struck by two things.
One was the swath of environmentally sensitive Florida that stretches up the coastline, potentially in the widening oil slick's path. The other was that no one seemed to be in the water skimming up the big globs of thick oil floating off the Panhandle beaches.
"We saw plenty of patches of oil moving in toward the coast,'' he said. "What was striking about it was that nothing out there was trying to capture it. You know eventually it's going to reach the shore.''
The view only reinforced his concerns that, while the Coast Guard is doing a fine job of tracking the spill, Hernando County needs to get busy planning for the oil and not count on just the Coast Guard's plan for the region.
"We can't wait until it's 60 nautical miles off our shore,'' Nugent said after the 4 1/2-hour flight that took him from Pinellas County to Destin in the Panhandle.
While no one is predicting when or if Hernando and surrounding counties will be impacted by the oil, Nugent's view from the air made the threat real.
Accompanying Nugent was Hernando County emergency management director Cecilia Patella. Her task now is to prepare alternatives that will ensure Hernando County is ready if the oil threatens the county's precious estuaries and salt marshes.
"We're going to have our emergency management staff look at other alternatives, what we would have to do to protect our entire coastline,'' he said.
Cost estimates and details about purchasing booms, absorbent material and other supplies needed would be collected and brought back to the County Commission for consideration, he said.
"My attitude is that we need to do that and then we need to recover those costs from BP,'' Nugent said.
If the oil spill does drift here, he's not sure about the conventional wisdom that says the Tampa Bay area would only get tar balls. "I think that's a lot of wishful thinking,'' he said.
The county has fought to add more zones to be protected to the official Coast Guard plan for Hernando including a push to get Hernando Beach protected.
State officials have been more focused on protecting environmental resources, but Patella told the County Commission last week that BP will want to minimize its liabilities and would likely be willing to protect waterfront homeowners as well as environmental resources.
"We fought for that and got it in," Nugent said. "We wouldn't be doing our job if we just said, 'ah, you're right.' "
The sheriff, who recently announced his candidacy for Congress, praised the Coast Guard for its monitoring of the location of the spill. "The Coast Guard really knows what they're doing as it relates to tracking," he said.
Nugent said the view from the air just reinforced how much he wanted to protect the entire coastline of Hernando.
"We're looking to be a little more aggressive,'' he said. "What we can do to protect the entire area … it is just so huge of an impact for our community."
With a community so dependent on a healthy coast, including the salt marshes that comprise the local nursery for sea life, taking a hard line on protection makes sense, Nugent said.
"It really gives you a bird's eye view on how fragile this coastline is,'' he said of the flight. "It was a great opportunity to see what we are facing.''
Thursday was also the day the county's engineering department met with representatives of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to set the baseline for Hernando's coastal region.
By boat, they scoured the length of the shore from Aripeka to Chassahowitzka to gather water and sediment from samples from six separate locations so that there will be a record of what the area was like before the oil spill arrived.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.