Florida's luck may be running out, and it needs to prepare for the worst. Oil from BP's runaway spill is just a few miles from the Panhandle and could reach the coastline by Friday. Gov. Charlie Crist asked the federal government Wednesday for more booms to protect the shorelines and for cash assistance for the devastated fishing industry. The broken wellhead under the gulf could continue spewing for another two months, and the focus has to shift from plugging the well to redoubling efforts to limit damage from the catastrophic spill.
The setbacks over the weekend and the change in weather mean that the size of coastal areas affected since the offshore rig Deepwater Horizon exploded six weeks ago could easily double in the coming days. Even if BP succeeds in its latest attempt to siphon oil from the wellhead, the procedure would at best reduce the flow that won't be stopped until August at the earliest. Yet BP's mop-up efforts continue to be too little, too late. Even with favorable weather conditions, the company has recovered only a fraction of the some 45 million gallons of oil leaked so far. This is a bad sign as the front line is about to extend across the gulf from Louisiana to Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.
The federal government's criminal investigation should prod BP to bring more resources to the table and to deal more honestly with the public. But the administration should not let the fight over public perceptions overshadow its focus on correcting the cleanup's shortcomings. A third of the gulf already is closed to commercial and recreational fishing. Oil is threatening the coastlines and beaches of four gulf states at the start of the summer holiday season. BP needs to bring more skimmer vessels, boom and cleanup crews to the gulf. And it needs to give residents faced with the loss of income for months or years the financial stability to survive and rebuild.
Crist set the right tone Wednesday, balancing the need to prepare along the Panhandle with the companion message that Florida's beaches and fisheries are still open for business. The governor and state Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole have been on top of the spill from the start, and their regular public appearances have bolstered public confidence in the state's readiness.
The weather over the next few days and the outcome of BP's pending attempt to siphon the oil will determine Florida's immediate fate. It also will shape where and how Florida markets itself to tourists. Crist said the $25 million advertising campaign, which began this week and is paid for by BP, had flexibility built in to change the market and the message depending on where and how badly the oil hits.
At the same time, local residents can help out their neighbors by vacationing closer to home. While some Midwestern tourists may have a tough time distinguishing Clearwater from Panama City as they are flooded by coverage of the oil disaster, Floridians know their state and know that its beaches are still beautiful and oil free — for now.