PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. - WINK News' Kyle Jordan is reporting from Pensacola Beach, where tar balls washed ashore Friday.
Children played with tar balls, hotels reported some cancellations and a charter boat captain broke down in tears Friday as the first waves of gooey oil blobs washed ashore on the white sand of the Florida Panhandle.
Tar balls came ashore along a 20-mile stretch from the Alabama line into Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties, the first significant oil to arrive in Florida since an explosion on a BP PLC rig off Louisiana 6 1/2 weeks ago killed 11 workers and unleashed a massive gusher. Between 22 million and 47 million gallons of petroleum has been dumped into the Gulf.
While Louisiana's coast has been inundated with oil in places, Florida like other Gulf coast states had mostly escaped until this week. But wind and current shifts this have driven the oil east and closer to the Panhandle in recent days. The oil is also nearing the loop current, which could drive oil south to the Florida Keys and into the Atlantic. There it could get into the Gulf Stream and shoot north along the state's East Coast before heading out to sea.
The Coast Guard is using skimmers off the Panhandle to capture oil and boom to contain what remains, but much is still getting past. BP says it had 320 people at work on beach cleanup Friday in the Panhandle.
"You can't keep it all away," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., after going out on a Coast Guard boat.
Gov. Charlie Crist on Friday asked BP for an additional $100 million to monitor the state's ecosystem, one day after requesting $50 million. The state has already received $50 million from BP for tourism campaigns and expenses.
Along the Panhandle's beaches Friday, tourists frolicked and sunned themselves even as tar balls and patties washed ashore, sometimes one every foot. The Panhandle's beaches draw thousands of tourists each summer, bringing millions of dollars to a region that was just starting to bounce back from the recession. The Panhandle also hosts a thriving fishing industry that is now threatened.
Doctors say people should stay away from oil on the beach or in the water: children could get a rash if they play with it. But swallowing a little oil-tainted water or getting slimed by a tar ball is not considered harmful. However, exposure to large amounts of it day after day for an extended period could cause breathing and neurological problems.
At Pensacola Beach, where a sign proclaims "The World's Whitest Beaches," Cindy Richerson held a yellow child's sand shovel and trailed a large, black garbage bag through the sand. The bag dragged from the weight of about 25-pounds of tar she and her grandson, Brennan Smith, 7, had collected.
The duo sifted through the sand with their bare hands for more than hour to collect the slimy globs. Richerson, a lifelong beach-area resident, said she wasn't worried about handling the mess and wasn't concerned about Brennan touching the tar.
"We are doing are part to clean up our beach," she said.
Escambia County Commission Chairman Grover Robinson IV said there are are no plans to close the beach.
"People go to the beach in Texas and there are tar balls there all the time," he said.
Earlier, as he walked along the beach, held a large clump of the tar. Robinson said he was upset cleanup crews were not scouring the beach first thing Friday morning when the tar made landfall.
"They should be out here at high tide when all this washes up. This needs to be cleaned every day," he said.
His son, Grover Robinson V, helped his father in the cleanup, saying the tar felt like "slimy gummy bears."
Moments later a work crew of about a dozen men with white plastic bags, gloves and shovels made their way down the beach and began picking up part of the tar.
Michael Tabb, a tourist from Meridian, Miss., watched the men from a beach chair as his 8-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son played nearby in the sand. Tabb said he'd warned the children not to pick up tar, but he wasn't too worried because the oil appeared to be light.
Earlier, Randy Ivie, a longtime charter boat captain, cried as he tried to express the sadness he feels knowing his grandchildren might not see the same white beach and turquoise waters he has spent his life enjoying.
"It kills me. I grew up here," he said.
Chris Thompson, president and CEO of Visit Florida, said the state's tourism agency is doing all it can to ensure the more than 80 million visitors a year who come to the state that the bulk of the state's beaches are clean and clear of oil.
Still, hotels along the western Panhandle coast reported cancellations: some a few, others a lot.
Baker Clark, owner of the 68-room Best Western motel in Navarre, said his bookings for the month are running at about 40 percent of capacity compared to 95 percent for a typical June. He's expecting a loss of about $100,000 in gross revenues for the month.
Things got worse Thursday as the oil neared shore, as he got 10 cancellations in an hour. He had about 10 more through mid-afternoon Friday.
"They say they don't want to take a chance and they're making other plans," Clark said. He noted none of his guests have left after arriving.
But David Lucas from Jonesville, La., and a group of friends planned to stop in the Panhandle while driving to Orlando, but left after wading into the oily water.
"It was sticky brown globs out there," Lucas said as the group cleaned the mess off their feet.
Further east in Santa Rosa County, Gordon Goodin, the county commission's chairman, said he saw gooey tar balls, "like the consistency of petroleum jelly" on Navarre Beach. The largest of the tar balls were about the size of a half dollar, others were smaller than a dime.
"It's an inconvenience and yeah I'm mad about it, and it could be a lot worse," Goodin said. "But our neighbors to the west are getting it a lot worse."
Goodin said he remained hopeful that the worst of the spill would not hit the area.
"I'm may be the eternal optimist here, but I'm hoping the more this oil becomes weatherized, the less impact we (will) have on our beaches," Goodin said.
But east of Navarre in Panama City Beach, several people who make their living off the fishing industry were not optimistic when they met with Nelson. Most expressed concerns that they would not be able to stay in business if the oil encroaches on the region.
"If you shut down the beaches, you're going to shut down the economy," said Yonnie Patronis, owner of Capt. Anderson's seafood restaurant.
The situation is bad enough even before oil has hit the area. There's still good fishing, but people are afraid the area has already been affected by the spill. So there's plenty of fresh fish to eat, but many aren't buying it.
"The fish is wonderful - fresh just like it always is, but they think it tainted," said Mel Miller, who owns a seafood market and a commercial fishing boat. Miller, 52, has been in the fishing business in the same area since he was 13, but now thinks he might have to find another line of work.
"I'm really scared," he said. "I've invested my life here."