PERDIDO KEY — On one of the westernmost patches of Florida earth, the people of this beach community plucked litter from impossibly white sand — lipstick-stained cigarette butts, bottle caps, straws, plastic cups — in a frantic effort to protect the shoreline from an oil spill gushing in the Gulf of Mexico that is likely arrive within days.
By lunchtime on this gray Sunday, hundreds of men, women and children were canvassing the 10-mile-long key in a delicate dance to remove debris that could become oil-coated contaminants, all without damaging wildlife nests, grassy beds and sand dunes.
Along the Florida Panhandle, towns whose livelihood, history and identity are inextricably linked to the beaches and bays are bracing for what promises to be an economic and environmental disaster caused by an April 20 oil rig explosion.
Perdido Key is likely to be the first place in Florida touched by the spill, but all across the region people believe that after this week, life will change.
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For now, they wait.
“It’s like waiting for a hurricane, the same kind of anxiety,” said Charlene Schultheis, who grew up in these parts and helped clean up the beach behind the Flora-Bama Lounge. “But once a hurricane blows through, you get up and clean up and rebuild. With this spill, you don’t know how long it will last. Every day could bring more and more.”
Red flags on the Panama City beaches instructed people to stay out of the water. Robert Cozine and his fellow surfing buddies ignored the warnings.
The choppy surf on Sunday didn’t make for ideal surfing conditions, but Cozine said he wanted to be on his board while he still had the chance.
“I feel like this oil — it’s like the comet that’s heading to Earth,” Cozine said. ‘‘There’s nothing you can do about it except wait to die and enjoy life while you can.”
As officials looked for ways to cap the leak, stem the oil’s spread and prepare for a massive clean-up, the fear hanging hovering over this part of Florida was palpable. In the simplest terms, fouled beaches would have a profound impact on the fishing, boating and tourism industries that sustain the Gulf Coast and beyond.
“The lifeblood of this community is marine commerce, and we are doing everything possible to keep everything open,” said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Steve Poulin.
But already, more than 500 miles away, Fort Lauderdale restaurateur Buddy Sherman predicts his popular happy hour oyster special will be canceled.
“We get our seafood supplies from Apalachicola, and even if they are not affected, the cost may go up. It’s a matter of supply and demand,” said Sherman, one of the owners of the Southport Raw Bar, where a dozen oysters can be had for $6.25 during happy hour.
‘‘This oil spill has me watching the news all the time.”
With 210,000 gallons of crude gushing daily and the 30-mile slick predicted to hit Florida shores by midweek, some people rushed to the beaches to help with clean-ups. Some cast fishing lines or rode the chopped waves, uncertain of when they may fish or surf again. Others headed to a seafood festival. And still others — hotel owners — answered the calls of worried tourists who canceled plans to spend a piece of the summer on the Gulf Coast.
“I am going fishing tonight because who knows when I will be able to do it again,” said Red Calvert, who boasts of catching a bounty of speckled trout and redfish from his 256 night fishing runs last year. “Fishing is my life. I work to fish.”