PENSACOLA — The Gulf of Mexico oil spill washed ashore for the first time on Florida’s Panhandle on Friday, stunning swimmers and tourists who began scooping the pudding-like globs into jars and plastic containers.
“I got a bottle full of it,” said Tonya Gill, of Pensacola. “Brings you to tears.”
Though it will take at least 24 hours to definitively confirm the debris is from the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion, state and federal officials were grim: Scientists say it’s only a matter time before the relentless crude washes into the powerful loop current that will pull it from the gulf through the Florida Straits and up the east coast.
President Barack Obama, under grueling political pressure, slammed BP for spending $50 million on television advertising to manage their image and planning to pay out $10 billion in dividends to shareholders this quarter.
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“They’ve got moral and legal obligations to the Gulf,” the president said after arriving in New Orleans on Friday, where he met with Gov. Charlie Crist, other governors and various lawmakers whose states are affected by the disaster.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government’s point man for the disaster, had some good news, however. The makeshift containment cap BP placed over the ocean-bottom gusher on Thursday has started to capture some of the flow, about 1,600 barrels a day.
“It does appear that the cap at least for now is holding,” Obama said. But he cautioned that “it is way to early to be optimistic.”
Obama said the group also discussed air and water quality. “We’re dealing with toxins here,” he said. “This could make people very sick if they’re not careful.”
Somewhere between 22 million to 47 million gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf since the rig exploded, according to government estimates. Eleven workers were killed in the blast.
“We are continuing to keep a close watch on the oil spill and are prepared to respond to any impacts we may experience,” Crist said Friday. “Florida is still open and we encourage everyone to go fishing and enjoy Florida seafood products.”
The brunt of the spill has devastated southern Louisiana, where oil struck the Queen Bess Island Pelican Rookery on Friday, coating 60 birds, including 41 pelicans. It has also ravaged marshland and crippled the state’s fishing industry.
But for the first time, the impact of the worst oil spill in U.S. history began to be felt in Florida, on Pensacola Beach, where 11 BP crews began the cleanup Friday.
Tom MacKenzie, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the southeastern region that includes Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, said several dead birds had been found along the Panhandle Friday. A few others were at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Pensacola. Some of them had been visibly oiled, he said.
“It’s not a huge influx at this point,” MacKenzie said, adding that the agency is also worried about turtles.
But the oil balls didn’t deter tourists.
Heather Baker and her husband and two sons were planning to visit Pensacola Beach — as they do a couple of times a year — on the Fourth of July.
“I told my husband, we better come down now before the oil,” said Baker, a teacher from Brandon, Miss.
Friday morning, 6-year-old Keane waded into the surf with his boogie board — and came out with tar on his arms and board, his mother said.
“He knew what it was,” she said.
The tar came off his body with a towel, but it stuck to the purple board.
Keane and his 8-year-old brother, Colin, kept swimming and digging in the sand, undeterred.
The county health department has said it is not a health risk, said Bob West, director of public safety for the Santa Rosa Island Authority. But it is a contaminant, so people should not be picking it up — though they’re doing so anyway.
The Coast Guard’s Allen said the federal government is trying to keep cleanup resources like oil-skimming boats and boom along Gulf coast states that have been clamoring for more help.
“We are adjusting the resources the best way we can and trying to be as responsive to local officials as possible,’’ Allen said. “It’s all hands on deck.’’
In other news Friday:
n Crist wrote Lamar McKay, president of BP America, requesting $100 million to cover the costs of the spill in Florida. The funds would support the efforts of the Florida Institute of Oceanography. He asked for another $50 million to cover the costs of ongoing preparedness efforts.
n Crist announced that a regional economic transition program has been established whereby impacted fishermen and affected businesses can now qualify for economic injury loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration.
n Public Citizen and seven other public interest groups, including Greenpeace, protested in the nation’s capital against BP’s mismanagement of the Gulf disaster.