BROOKSVILLE — As the Deepwater Horizon oil spill continues to spread toward the eastern Gulf, Hernando County's top emergency official said Tuesday she could see no way that the county will escape the impacts.
With the timing and severity of the contamination largely unknown, Emergency Management Director Cecilia Patella said planning is already under way for the county's reaction.
Patella said booms to hold back the oil are planned only for the most sensitive portions of Hernando County's coast. "We cannot put up a barrier along the entire coastline,'' she said.
Those areas have already been identified through the Coast Guard's plans for the region but Patella said other areas of specific concern can also be added during this preparation process.
Owners of boats moored in coastal communities could be urged to move their vessels out of the water and into storage until the conditions improve.
The mobilization of volunteers is in the early stages and agencies that would coordinate activities when and if the oil arrives are establishing lines of communications.
On Monday, after Gov. Charlie Crist expanded his emergency declaration down Florida's west coast including Hernando County, Patella gathered a team to begin discussing strategy.
Those at the table included Emergency Management, Hazardous Materials through Hernando County Fire Rescue, the Port Authority, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, the Sheriff's marine unit and the waterways staff for the county, Patella said.
She said the incident has expanded to the point now that "we are wanting to get information out on this and get people starting to think about it.'' Patella is expected to be releasing information in the days ahead.
"It's very early in the process,'' she said.
While British Petroleum is responsible for the cleanup, the coordination of the local response will be through emergency management with the Hazardous Materials officials as the prime partner leading the operation.
Asking residents to pull their boats out of the water is a definite possibility, Patella said. During a county commission workshop on Tuesday, Port Authority Chairman Chuck Morton warned that the hazardous oil would be impossible to clean and any boat soaking in it would be destined for the landfill.
"It's a pretty big deal'' if the county asked everyone to pull their boats, said Joseph Ambrose, who co-owns Snapper Marina with his wife, Lucy. Ambrose predicted that could mean that 1,000 boats would need to be moved. While Snapper Marina can house up to 250 boats, Ambrose said the worry is that people might wait until the last minute.
He predicted that even with the concern that oil will damage their craft, many boat owners won't heed such an order. "History says that people are going to do what they want,'' Ambrose said.
Dealing with the environmental impacts of the spill will be a tall order, said Joe Murphy of the Gulf Restoration Network.
"Hernando County and the whole Nature Coast are one of the most vulnerable areas of Florida for this kind of disaster, coastal marsh, coastal wetland,'' Murphy said. "Those are the kinds of places where, once oil gets in there, it's going to be there for a long time. It's almost impossible to remove.''
Murphy said that the hope is that Hernando and the surrounding counties will see only a minor impact, but having the toxic oil in the environment will be devastating to all sorts of marine life, birds and wildlife not to mention Florida's economic turnaround and the state's tourism industry.
He said efforts were already in discussion to collect the kinds of volunteers necessary to help with whatever cleanup is needed. Even as he was confident people would come forward, he was sorry that all of his organization's reasons for fighting Gulf drilling proved sadly true.
"This has got to be a teachable moment. It has got to be,'' Murphy said. "This can never happen again.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.