BP continues to think it can buy off Florida on the cheap. Why else would it send company vice president Bob Fryar to Tuesday's meeting of the Florida governor and Cabinet with only $25 million to help the state deal with the immediate fallout from the disaster it created? Florida needs 10 times that amount — and it needs it now — to safeguard the coast, clean up the shorelines and advertise to the world that the vast majority of beaches and waters are clean, open and crying for business.
Given his place near the top of BP's pecking order, and the high expectations that Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet made in the run-up to Tuesday's meeting, Fryar should have showed up with serious cash and a plan for expanding BP's response efforts. Instead he danced around the relatively tame criticisms by Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink. He made no guarantees that BP would bring serious resources to the table or speed or simplify the process for hoteliers, fishermen and others to recover their lost incomes.
BP provided Florida with $25 million already, but most of that money already has been spent. A total of $50 million comes nowhere close to a down payment. A University of Central Florida economist predicted that the worst oil spill in U.S. history could cost Florida $10.9 billion and 195,000 jobs. Hotels, charter boat operators, restaurants and shops from the Panhandle down to the Pinellas beaches already are reporting mass cancellations and empty dining rooms at the very start of the summer tourist season. The state needs a big chunk of cash immediately if it hopes to salvage bookings for July and August. The fate of family businesses and entire communities is at stake.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, should look to reopen BP's checkbook today. She will meet with BP about her request that the company provide $100 million to study the oil's impact on gulf waters. Federal officials Tuesday confirmed that a huge subsea plume of oil was found northeast of the gushing well, a discovery first reported last month by a research vessel from the University of South Florida. The public needs to know where the oil is moving, especially if it threatens to collect in the loop current and move south across the Florida Keys and Miami up the East Coast. Tracking the oil is the responsibility of the federal response command, and BP — not the taxpayers — should pay for it.
State officials need to keep the pressure on BP to offer more money and manpower. BP has eight claims offices in Florida even though some 30 counties are impacted by the spill so far. Crist suggested one in each of those counties would be reasonable. The company also needs to provide Florida with advertising dollars now so the state can reach overseas tourists before they book elsewhere. And the company needs to finance the state's cleanup costs up front. Counties don't have the money to spend now and wait for a check. Cash also would give the state the flexibility to respond should the oil move fast or become a greater threat in the coming days.
Floridians can thank the weather, not BP, for sparing the state the worst so far. The heartbreaking scenes from Louisiana's oil-soaked beaches and marshes show just how bad it can get, and BP has a responsibility to that state as well. But it will take months to plug the well, and Florida cannot count on having such luck throughout the hurricane season. State officials need to keep on BP and demand the money necessary to fight this battle and compensate Floridians for their losses before the company creates a second catastrophe on shore.