Special Reports

Crist places Manatee under state of emergency

MANATEE — Gov. Charlie Crist on Monday extended his state of emergency order to 13 more counties, including Manatee and Sarasota, bringing the total to 19, as a spreading oil slick in the gulf threatened Florida’s coast.

“I found that this event threatens the State of Florida with a major disaster, and proclaimed a state of emergency exists for the counties of Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay and Gulf,” the governor wrote Monday about the April fire and explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform and well.

“As the oil continues to spill from the well and all efforts to stop the discharge have failed and may not succeed for an extended period of time, more Florida counties could be affected,” he wrote.

Among the newly listed were Manatee, Sarasota, Franklin, Wakulla, Jefferson, Taylor, Dixie, Levy, Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough, the order said.

The order set in motion a comprehensive emergency management plan and will expedite quick official action, according to a governor’s office spokeswoman.

Local officials plan to meet today with a U.S. Coast Guard team in St. Petersburg in order to prepare for whatever might be in the offing as a result of the massive oil spill.

“We’ve got conference calls going on (Monday), we’re meeting with the (U.S.) Coast Guard (today), they’re in charge of the incident,” said Bob Tollise, hazardous materials security chief for Manatee County Public Safety Department.

“We’re pulling all our departments together as a county, trying to come up with a plan,” said Tollise. “It’s difficult because of the fact the leak has not stopped, it’s an ongoing leak.”

“We’re doing everything we can on our end to prepare for whatever is coming our way,” he added.

Even though, so far, there has been no impact to local beaches as a result of the environmental disaster, officials are monitoring the situation, said Steve Simpson, operations officer for the Manatee County Emergency Management Division.

“We have had numerous conference calls with the Coast Guard and the Florida Department of Emergency Management,” he said.

The governor reiterated that there is no projected impact for Florida through Wednesday, said Nick Azzara, a spokesman for the county.

“The governor is hoping for the best, but wants all counties to be prepared for the worst,” he said. “It’s all dependent on winds and tides at this point.”

Sarasota County commissioners have slated an emergency meeting for 3 p.m. today, officials there said.

Because of poor weather that has curtailed flights over the gulf, no one really knows how big the slick is, or which way and how fast it is moving, said Petty Officer Cory Mendenhall, reached Monday evening at the Unified Command Joint Information Center in Robert, La.

Suzi Fox, director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Protection, said she and 50 volunteers were in a holding pattern until more exact information about the spill’s path is available.

Should oil reach hundreds of least terns nesting along the beaches, it would kill the eggs and the birds would abandon their nests, she said.

Similarly, about 300 turtles who last year nested along the Manatee shoreline are still in the water and have not yet laid eggs, she said. They are at a delicate stage and are vulnerable to the effects of oil, she said.

“The Turtle Watch volunteers are all e-mailing me and calling me,” said Fox. “Everybody wants to wrap their hands around these nesting beaches and keep it safe; they need to take a deep breath and see what happens here.”

She added: “Let’s just hope to goodness this is just good practice for us, we don’t have to go through the real thing.”

Oil could affect many creatures in the gulf, from the tiniest microorganisms and phytoplankton to large animals like whale sharks, said Hayley Rutger, a spokesperson for Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium.

“We don’t know if it’ll come here, but if it does, it would be of concern not just for nesting turtles, but all forms of sea life,” she said.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.