MANATEE -- If tar balls had washed ashore here during the 2010 oil disaster, Manatee County officials planned to provide beach-walking volunteers with little orange flags to plant atop each mound of goop.
That way, it would be easier for cleanup crews poised to deal with oil to find gooey harbingers of the spill, and rake them up.
Fortunately, the plan never went into effect, because none of the 176 million gallons of oil government experts estimate were emitted from a blown-out BP well reached Manatee County.
Four years after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster began on April 20, 2010, near the Louisiana coast, there have been a number of hard lessons learned, along with some signs of better preparedness for such emergencies, officials say.
However, litigation continues against BP in court, while research continues to measure how much damage the oil has inflicted on plants and animals in areas fouled by the largest offshore oil spill in the nation's history.
Meanwhile, BP has already spent approximately $27 billion on response, cleanup, early restoration and claims payments, company officials said last week in a statement.
Asked whether Manatee County is better prepared should such a situation occur again, Charlie Hunsicker, the county's director of parks and natural resources, said there have been some positive changes.
"We realized we needed to plan for inlet and pass protection as well as shoreline protection, when it came to drifting surface oil," he said Friday. "We've been looking at ways at which some of our most sensitive tidal tributaries could be barricaded, without impeding navigation."
Although Manatee County officials did not have to break out their spill response team and equipment, that equipment -- mats to soak up oil, skimmers, floating barriers and boats -- remains stored at Port Manatee.
And as a caveat, county officials still would use little orange flags to mark oil incursions, part of their 2010 plan, said Hunsicker.
"We would still do that today, if we needed to," he said. "It's helping citizens help us respond immediately and correctly to areas of problems on the beach."
The oil spill also brought painful lessons about how much is needed to save wildlife when oil floods sensitive areas, he said.
One lesson: Immeasurable damage occurs in surface and deep ocean environments that may take many, many years to measure and determine.
"We've also learned that surface oil, when dispersed in remote environmentally-sensitive areas, carries a great cost to the fish, birds and other wildlife that depend upon those marshes for survival," Hunsicker said. "Mere hopes of scraping oil off our recreational beaches is not enough to proclaim victory in beating back the effects of a spill."
Also pondering the spill's legacy was a group of government officials, environmentalists, scientists and citizens who met Thursday on the waterfront at St. Petersburg to commemorate 11 victims who died in the fire and explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drill rig, and to discuss the future.
Some called for more study of how the Gulf's complex ecology works, others suggested a shift from harmful fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy, and yet others called for holding government responsible for its failure to protect coastal residents.
"We should have been protected from this on the front end," said state Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg.
Speaking near the Mahaffey Theater overlooking a popular boating area, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman called oil drilling "a threat to our way of life in St. Petersburg."
"Let's remember the marine life that has suffered because of the oil spill and the subsequent dispersants, and that will continue to suffer well into the future," he said.
"Let's remember the negative impact that this spill has had on our Gulf Coast economy and let's recommit ourselves to renewable energy -- the kind that doesn't kill or pollute, the kind that doesn't destroy economies or fund terrorism."
Perhaps the federal government and the oil companies had both learned lessons from the debacle, said Kara Lankford, interim director of the nonprofit Gulf Restoration Program.
"I remember being there, and seeing fearful puzzled looks on the faces of federal officials, BP, and others -- it was obvious it was sheer panic," she recalled in an interview with the Bradenton Herald.
"It didn't give me much confidence that people in charge of this disaster didn't know what to do," she said.
Although she didn't think anything had changed dramatically, officials are rewriting contingency plans, and "it's always good to update," she said.
People may also be more aware of how much the Gulf of Mexico contributes to the coastal states that surround it, said David Westerholm, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Response and Restoration, based in Silver Spring, Md.
"I do believe there's a general greater awareness out there," he said.
As for lessons learned, he cited new technological advances designed to give responders a better visual picture of how best to deal with a spill, and advanced techniques to better predict where oil will go once it's in the water.
Many new techniques are also available now in well control, to help prevent blowouts in the first place, he added.
He was also excited about NOAA's new Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center, in Mobile, Ala., which expands federal capacity to plan for and respond to hazards of all types.
The center brings together resources to improve preparedness, planning, and response capacity for natural and human-caused disasters along the Gulf Coast, according to the center's website.
A plethora of scientific research in the gulf is underway, said Dana Wetzel, program manager and senior scientist at Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory.
"Everybody is quite onboard with making the most out of a horrible situation," she said.
"We're making the most out of it, finding out all we can about the implications, how long this will last, in terms of fisheries, human health, environmental health -- it is just a big, big undertaking."
Wetzel operates Mote's environmental forensic lab, which analyzes organic contaminants in the environment, including oil.
Scientists can measure the concentration of oil in an organism's body, checking the concentrations, she said.
"We look for health effects on organisms: Already there are effects on the immune system, DNA damage on the reproductive potential for an animal, and that's what we're measuring in regards to a number of fish species from the Gulf," she said.
Teams have been collecting fish since the spill occurred, taking them from the water from the blowout area outward, and documenting the effects.
"Farther and farther away from Ground Zero, will we see diminishing effects?" she asked. "And we are seeing that: And as an example, one thing they're measuring is cellular damage: Over time and over space, we're seeing some diminishing in the damage," she said, adding that any findings are still preliminary.
"Ultimately, we'll get all our data together, and see what has happened," said Wetzel.
Asked about its views at the four-year mark after the spill, a BP statement pointed to numerous signs of progress, from record tourism to a thriving fishing industry, although the company said "some advocacy groups refuse to acknowledge evidence of the region's recovery."
"No company has done more to respond to an industrial accident," BP said. "And based on information from third-party sources, the Gulf is undergoing a robust recovery."
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.