Special Reports

Crist draws criticism for reaction to spill

TALLAHASSEE — Mounting frustration over the oil spill’s potential damage to Florida tourism boiled over Tuesday into blunt criticism of Gov. Charlie Crist, who strongly defended the state’s response.

Unfounded fears of tainted seafood, oily water and ruined beaches could destroy beachfront tourism in Northwest Florida, say local officials and business owners, and in so doing worsen the state’s sales-tax-reliant revenue picture.

The region viewed as most vulnerable is the Northwest Panhandle, where the summer tourist season kicks off this week with the three-day Memorial Day weekend. But with hotels losing bookings and restaurants losing customers, Democratic Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink joined Republican Sen. Don Gaetz of Niceville in a blistering critique of the state’s response as too little, too late.

“It’s in days like this that I miss Jeb Bush,” Gaetz acidly told reporters after he beseeched the governor and Cabinet for immediate help.

Gaetz lampooned Crist for seeking a special legislative session to constitutionally ban oil drilling off Florida’s coast at a time when he said many fishermen, hoteliers and restaurateurs are worried about making this week’s payroll. Crist’s proposed ban would not prevent a future disaster like the Deepwater Horizon spill, which occurred beyond state waters.

With his leadership being openly questioned, Crist defended the state’s reaction, including seeking more federal help and putting the National Guard on alert.

“It’s frustrating to everybody,” Crist said. “It’s easy to try to point fingers and cast blame. What’s important is to work as a team. We’re all frustrated. We’re all agitated. We’re all Floridians, though, and we need to stick together.”

It wasn’t until last Saturday, 32 days after the Deepwater Horizon pipe burst off the Louisiana coast, that Florida launched the first TV ads to reassure tourists that the beaches are still clean. The ads, which cost $2.5 million, use phrases like “the coast is clear’’ and “Northwest Florida is open for business.”

But when the ads, featuring stock-looking still images of happy beachgoing tourists, were played for Cabinet members, Sink mocked them as ineffective and generic. Crist’s critique: “They can always be better. No question about it.”

By the time the state receives $25 million from BP to pay for a much more extensive TV ad campaign, Sink said, “It’s going to be too late’’ for Panhandle businesses. “Their season is now. It’s the next 90 days. . . . I am very disappointed in the lack of sense of urgency about getting this problem solved and getting it solved now.”

Sink prodded Crist to find state money for ads if the check from BP doesn’t arrive immediately. Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum said it was “shocking’’ and ‘‘very, very disturbing’’ that BP’s money hasn’t arrived more than two weeks after the oil giant promised to help Florida respond. Sink and McCollum, rivals in the campaign for governor, briefly set aside their bickering to agree that the state needs to do more.

Crist found one ally: Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson, who criticized national media coverage of the spill for failing to say that things in Florida are all right. He said national seafood buyers are reducing their purchases of Florida fish.

“We do have seafood that is safe here in Florida,” Bronson said. “We have beaches that are just as white today as they were 30 days ago.”

Tuesday’s criticism drowned out the one piece of good news: that weather patterns continue to work in Florida’s favor, and there is to date no evidence of any damage to Florida’s coastline.

Mike Sole, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, used colorful maps to highlight the serendipitous weather patterns, noting that two eddies or circular currents have formed at key points to block the now-famous “loop current,” a highway of water, from shooting oil around the tip of the Florida peninsula and up the East Coast.

The two eddies are holding the oil in place and out of the current, keeping it from reaching Florida’s beaches.

“Candidly, there’s some real good news on the loop current,” Sole said. “We have an eddy that’s formed in the perfect location. It just happened to occur at an amazing time.”

The ferocity of Tuesday’s criticism of the spill response effort underscores the challenge Crist — an independent U.S. Senate candidate — faces in managing the spill’s potential effect on Florida: As commander in chief, Crist can dominate the news cycle and attract massive publicity, but if the state’s response goes awry he is sure to be held responsible.

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