The sobering photographs of ruined Pensacola Beach have brought home to Tampa Bay the horror of the Deepwater Horizon spill. It is now easy to imagine the damage here — an oily scourge staining white-powder beaches, floating in the water and coating wildlife, and the beautiful landscape so essential to the region's identity and economy marred for the foreseeable future.
But officials in Tampa Bay and all coastal counties can also learn from what they saw in Pensacola by making detailed plans for how they would respond if they woke to a similar disaster. Though experts say prevailing winds and currents could keep the oil from Tampa Bay beaches, hurricane season has just begun and weather forecasters say there could be a tropical storm in the gulf next week. It only makes sense to plan for the unexpected.
Officials had thought Pensacola would get only tar balls that could be easily shoveled up. But Wednesday's sunrise revealed a beach plastered with blobs and pools of mousse-like emulsified oil — a mileslong strip of ugly. Officials weren't prepared. Initially, as residents gathered and cried in horror, just a few workers with shovels confronted the miles of pollution. Hours after the oil had begun seeping into the sand, more workers and bulldozers finally arrived.
Nor was communication with the public clear. Mike Sole, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said the beach was safe. But a couple of hours later the Escambia County Health Department issued a health advisory that the oil was toxic and people should stay away.
In Pinellas, Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard is convinced, and he is right, that county and city officials should be talking more about preparations in case the oil comes here. Hibbard and the Fort Myers mayor were the only two Florida mayors who took advantage of an invitation this week to tour the oil-tainted Louisiana shoreline and get a detailed briefing from the U.S. Coast Guard. Hibbard's message is applicable to any coastal county.
To that point, the Florida Association of Counties met Wednesday with state, Coast Guard and BP officials, expressing frustration that county governments continue to be left out of the loop. Okaloosa County officials got so fed up that they started their own cleanup efforts, applauded by Gov. Charlie Crist, who told them to "go for it."
Counties know their local environments best, have an emergency response system in place because of hurricanes, and should be part of the oil spill response. But Crist needs to continue his work to improve communication and coordination among all responders and interested parties so no local government feels abandoned and compelled to strike out on its own.
While there is no oil on west coast beaches, this is no time for complacency. Officials and residents can use this time to educate themselves, smooth out wrinkles in planning and communications, and then pray the plan never has to be implemented.