Class of 2016

Panhandle girds for oil’s arrival (with photo galleries)

PENSACOLA — Florida Gov. Charlie Crist took an aerial tour of Florida’s northwest Gulf coast Thursday and spotted a patch of light oil sheen closing in on a panhandle bitterly bracing for its turn at the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

The sheen was 3 1/2 to four miles off Pensacola Beach, “much closer than we’d like it to be,” with the bulk of the sheen about 10 miles away, the governor reported.

Hours earlier his office warned that weathered oil — brown blobs, a sheen or a rusty brown mixture called a mousse — “could impact the Florida Panhandle as early as this week due to a shift in winds and currents.”

The state is immediately replacing an advertising campaign proclaiming the “coast is clear.” The new campaign highlights Florida’s 825 miles of beaches, proclaiming that most are unaffected.

“I can’t even watch the news anymore,” Panhandle fisherman Rick Lowe said near Fort Pickens in the Gulf Island National Seashore. He described the mood among locals as “quiet anger.”

“It’s really overwhelming,” he said. “Everybody’s hoping that it doesn’t destroy our way of life.”

To be prepared, workers moved in booms and a skimmer to try to catch the oil before it reached the shore.

Fears were two-fold: for the ecology of the Panhandle’s famed white sand beaches and for the Sunshine State’s tourism industry as a whole, once tar balls or worse turned up on Florida shores.

The strategy was this: Four Coast Guard helicopters were surveying the area, and refueling off a cutter in the area, to guide the skimmers to capture the oil before it reached Pensacola’s fragile wetlands along the intracoastal waterways, notably the Perdido and Pensacola passes.

“It is possible, but we are dealing with varying weather conditions, to mitigate the amount of oil going to shore,” an Obama administration official told The Miami Herald editorial board Thursday afternoon.

Spotters earlier Thursday detected the vanguard of the spill some six miles from Navarre Pier in Santa Rosa County, as well as 10 miles from the Escambia County shoreline, according to a noon advisory from the governor’s office in Tallahassee.

The primary plume itself was 30 miles off Pensacola, and 330 miles from St. Petersburg.

It was Day 44 of the oil spill and the Gulf of Mexico’s no-fishing zone was also closing in on Florida. The federal government expanded its closure area to cover 88,502 square miles — 37 percent of Gulf waters — from the western end of the Panhandle south toward Cuban waters.

The no-fishing zone was also edging toward the Florida Keys, which this week had a spate of reports of sheen and tar ball discoveries in the vicinity of Duck Key, near Long Key around mile marker 60. Preliminary tests, however, found the contamination came from elsewhere — not the broken well that has been dumping 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf for six weeks.

In Pensacola, Escambia County emergency management planning coordinator Brad Hattaway said the first anticipated impacts would likely be “just bits and pieces of tar mats,” and possibly a “very, very thin oil sheen,” that might evaporate before reaching the shore.

Workers continued to put boom along the Pensacola shore line, and stormy weather passing through the area Thursday kept most people away from Pensacola’s beaches.

But TV news crews dotted the Gulf shoreline, as well as a few resilient people fishing. Al Roker of NBC’s “Today” show broadcast live from the beach behind the Hampton Inn as Escambia drew the spotlight.

Wednesday, Crist visited the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee and said protecting the state was a paramount concern.

In other news Thursday:

The White House announced that President Barack Obama would make his third trip to Louisiana on Friday.

The Obama administration sent BP a bill of $69 million for spill-related response and recovery costs. The White House said it would continue to bill BP.

BP finally succeeded in slicing off a pipe, less smoothly than engineers had hoped for, and were poised to put a cap over the gusher called a “top hat.”

“The scientists feel like there is every reason to think it will work,” a senior official told The Miami Herald. “But the scientists have been wrong before. So we hope for the best and plan for the worst.”

Crist wrote Lamar McKay, president of BP America, requesting an additional $50 million to cover the costs of ongoing preparedness efforts for oil impact on the Florida coastline.

Louisiana was increasingly turning to sand barriers to protect its coast. Allen on Wednesday directed BP to pay for five additional barriers.

Florida was so far emphasizing booms and skimmers in its coastal protection strategy. On Wednesday, Florida said it had a quarter-million feet of boom deployed in the state.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been steadily widening its no-fishing zone both to let cleanup workers capture portions of the moving slick and to protect the seafood industry. The closure does not reach state waters.

“Closing fishing in these areas is a precautionary measure to ensure that seafood from the Gulf will remain safe for consumers,” a NOAA statement said.

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