MOBILE, Ala. — As the hulking Air National Guard C-130 drops to an altitude of 500 feet and slowly tips to one side, a scene emerges that's both overpowering and heartbreaking: the vastness of the Gulf of Mexico, coated in crude oil.
"Look at that, I mean, my gosh," says Gov. Charlie Crist, peering out the window.
Reality sets in: The huge slick is drifting slowly toward the Florida coastline. The spot is off the Louisiana coast at midday Tuesday, less than 10 miles from where the BP well ruptured off the Louisiana coast two weeks ago.
A vivid rainbow is reflected on the darkened water, creating a visual and emotional counterpoint to the thick, splotchy sheets of oil clearly visible below. The slick at times looks rust colored, what officials say is a reaction to the use of chemical agents.
"The expansiveness of it is just incredible," Crist said. "It just continues to grow. That's very distressing. We're just trying to do everything we can to protect our state."
Crist says the "vastness" of the spill looks much greater than his first visit here a week ago. The rear ramp of the plane opens to offer a closer look at the oil-coated Gulf. "This thing is going to be with us for a long time," Crist says.
"It's just a mass of gunk," says Attorney General Bill McCollum. "It's brown, it's ugly, it's very much out there, and there's a lot of it."
Earlier Tuesday in Pensacola, Crist got a briefing on oil spill cleanup operations and heard county and city officials talk about bureaucratic bottlenecks: They are frantically awaiting Coast Guard approval of their local cleanup plan to deploy people and equipment, and it's not yet forthcoming.
Maps of the spill's trajectory and anticipated ocean currents point to oil flowing into Pensacola Bay, making Thursday a key day for Pensacola, said John Dosh, the Escambia County emergency manager.
More than 500 people in Pensacola have signed up for a four-hour course in oil cleanup, and the county is harvesting whatever it can find to absorb surface oil, from hay bales to peat moss.
Crist spoke of the need for good preparations to cope with what he called an "unprecedented crisis" in Florida. Crist's environmental chief, Mike Sole, said every major decision on the cleanup is being made at the Unified Command Center in Mobile, Ala., where the governor will visit later Tuesday.
BP will contribute $25 million to Florida to defray cleanup costs, but Florida emergency management chief Dave Halstead said: "That will just be the tip of the iceberg if they can't cap that well."
The political value to Crist appearing to take charge as governor while running for the U.S. Senate was not overlooked by a stalwart Crist supporter on the trip, Sen. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview.
"The governor is going to have the Panhandle as his second home until this thing is resolved," Peaden said as the crowd applauded.
Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink said BP needs more people in Florida to help business owners submit claims for losses. When she called the oil giant Monday, she said she was told to call an 800 number. Sink said she is getting reports as far south as Clearwater of people canceling vacation trips.
The western Panhandle economy is heavily dependent on marine-related tourism, and business owners already are sounding frantic.
John Naybor owns three marinas with a total of 200 slips, and he sustained heavy losses from Hurricane Ivan in 2004 that he said he has not yet overcome.
"We're running on empty, financially," said Naybor, whose marinas are at 63 percent occupancy. "This could be the final kiss of death for some of us who are on the edge."
Crist said the $25 million block grant from BP is to help businesses who can prove economic losses related to the spill. He planned a conference call later Tuesday with the governors of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
"The last thing we want to be accused of is not doing enough," Crist said.
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Local environmental officials were briefed Tuesday by Coast Guard officials from the St. Petersburg sector and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. They also discussed potential pollution mitigation strategies if the oil slick makes it way to the Tampa Bay area or any part of Florida's peninsular coast.
"We are working hard to coordinate with all stakeholders well ahead of any impact to our area," said Cmdr. Tim Haws, chief of response for Sector St. Petersburg, in a prepared statement.
"If the oil comes this way, we want to … connect with our partnering agencies and key environmental groups to ensure we are all operating as efficiently as possible."
Contingency plans also are being drawn up in case the spill moves down to the rest of Florida, according to the Coast Guard.
Those plans could include setting up a Florida command post in one of two Coast Guard bases, Sector St. Petersburg or Sector Key West. It all depends on what happens next, officials said.
According to an e-mail from Conference Direct, which is doing work for BP, the company's first choice would be to set up a command center in St. Petersburg.
The company's second choice is Air Station Clearwater, from which the Coast Guard flies rescue and drug interdiction missions across the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.
In an e-mail sent to the Pinellas County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the company wants to book 100 rooms from May 7 to June 13, along with a meeting room to use as an operations center and a larger space that can accommodate up to 200 people to use as a briefing center.
The Coast Guard will be the lead planning agency for Pinellas on the oil spill, said Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala, who was part of Tuesday's briefing.
"We don't expect what one would call the big black ooze on our beaches," LaSala said, referring to predictions over the next 72 hours.
Beyond that time, the effects of the loop current in the gulf are questionable, he said.
Times staff writers Jamal Thalji and David DeCamp contributed to this report.