TALLAHASSEE — Simmering frustration over the oil spill's potential damage to Florida tourism erupted Tuesday into blunt criticism of Gov. Charlie Crist, who defended the state's response and later trumpeted the arrival of $25 million from BP for TV ads aimed at calming tourists' fears.
Crist said the money would be put to work within 48 hours to counter the economically threatening misconception that the entire Gulf Coast is tainted by the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
"Our Florida beaches are clean and clear, the fish are biting and the Sunshine State including Northwest Florida are open for business," Crist said.
The ads will appear in Southeast TV markets at a crucial time, as Panhandle officials and business owners say unwarranted fears of tainted seafood, oily water and ruined beaches could wreck their economy.
The summer tourist season kicks off this week with the three-day Memorial Day weekend, but with hotels losing bookings and restaurants short of customers, Democratic Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink joined Republican Sen. Don Gaetz of Niceville in a blistering critique of the state's response as too little, too late.
"It's in days like this that I miss Jeb Bush," Gaetz acidly told reporters after he beseeched the governor and Cabinet for immediate help for his region.
Gaetz mocked Crist for seeking a special legislative session to ban oil drilling off Florida's coast at a time when he said many fishermen, hoteliers and restaurateurs are worried about making this week's payroll.
With his leadership being openly questioned, Crist defended the state's reaction, including seeking more federal help and putting the National Guard on alert. Amid Tuesday's criticism, he scratched a trip to Orlando to promote a back-to-school sales tax break to keep the focus on the spill response.
"It's easy to try to point fingers and cast blame," Crist said. "What's important is to work as a team. We're all frustrated. We're all agitated. We're all Floridians, though, and we need to stick together."
It wasn't until last Saturday, 32 days after the Deepwater Horizon pipe burst off the Louisiana coast, that Florida launched the first TV ads to reassure tourists that the beaches are still clean. The ads, which cost $2.5 million, use phrases like "the coast is clear" and "Northwest Florida is open for business."
But the ads, featuring stock-looking still images of happy beachgoers, did not impress Cabinet members. Sink called them ineffective and generic. Crist said: "They can always be better, no question about it."
It was Sink on May 10 who first demanded that the oil giant BP pay for a TV ad blitz aimed at shoring up Florida tourism.
Sink said that by the time the $25 million is spent, "It's going to be too late" for Panhandle businesses. "Their season is now. It's the next 90 days. . . . I am very disappointed in the lack of sense of urgency about getting this problem solved."
Hours before BP wired the $25 million to Florida, Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum said it was "shocking" and "very, very disturbing" that the money hadn't arrived more than two weeks after it was promised. Sink and McCollum, rivals in the campaign for governor, agree that the state needs to do more.
Crist found one ally: Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, who criticized national media coverage of the spill for failing to say that things in Florida are all right. He said national seafood buyers are reducing their purchases of Florida fish.
"We do have seafood that is safe here in Florida," Bronson said. "We have beaches that are just as white today as they were 30 days ago."
Tuesday's criticism drowned out a piece of good news: that weather patterns continue to work in Florida's favor and there is no evidence of damage to Florida's coastline.
Mike Sole, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, noted that two eddies, or circular currents, have formed at key points to block the loop current, a highway of water, from shooting oil around the tip of the Florida peninsula and up the East Coast.
The two eddies are holding the oil in place and out of the current, keeping it from reaching Florida's beaches.
"We have an eddy that's formed in the perfect location," Sole said. "It just happened to occur at an amazing time."
The ferocity of Tuesday's criticism underscores the challenge Crist — an independent U.S. Senate candidate — faces in managing the spill response: As governor, Crist can dominate the news cycle and attract massive publicity, but if the state's response goes awry he is sure to be held responsible.
"It's easy to criticize. It's a lot harder to produce," Crist said. "I'm very proud of the team effort."
Times/Herald staff writer John Frank contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.