Special Reports

Hundreds turn up for spill readiness meeting in Manatee

ANNA MARIA — Hundreds jammed the Anna Maria Island Community Center on Thursday to hear details about how Manatee County is preparing to deal with the Gulf spill should oil wash ashore here.

A panel of county and emergency management officials, businesspeople, a scientist and tourism experts gave the crowd an update on everything from the military-style command structure that is already in place, to how scallop sampling is done.

“The key to prevailing lies in detailed preparation and readiness,” said Mike Shannon, manager of the BeachHouse Restaurant at Bradenton Beach, who organized the Manatee County Spill Readiness Meeting.

Its purpose was to ensure that Manatee County is “the most well-prepared county,” he said, noting that the size of the crowd was an indication that the community is willing, ready and able to do what it takes to handle whatever happens.

Emergency Management Chief Laurie Feagans explained how her agency’s military-style unified command works, with Department of Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker as Manatee’s official incident commander-in-charge.

“It’s an organized approach to manage chaos if chaos should happen,” she explained.

Her office coordinates with the U.S. Coast Guard, state and BP officials, she said.

What would happen if oil came here would be similar to the way her agency handles a hurricane or any other type of emergency, she said, adding, “We are organized, we work this structure all the time.”

Hunsicker explained that officials are doing an extensive sampling program, scooping up samples of bay water, bottom sediments and documenting the area’s living organisms, sea grasses, scallops and mussels.

Such a program is necessary because if oil arrives here, officials must be able to prove damage, so they want to document how pristine the wild places are right now.

The county has a contingency plan in place to protect its most precious wild places, and if oil appears, booms and other protective devices will be deployed, he said.

If a clean-up is needed, “Our response will be measured and deliberate,” he said.

Hunsicker also urged people to volunteer to help through organizations like Wildlife Inc., a wildlife rescue center, and Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. If people think they see oil, they should report it to the county’s new hotline number, (941) 749-3547, which will provide a local team to investigate, Hunsicker said.

Also Thursday, Gov. Charlie Crist visited Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, marveling at its research firepower and viewing some of the technology that is being used to track the spill.

Mote scientists showed off Nemo, an underwater robot designed originally to track Red Tide bacteria, but which has now been converted to hunt for oil.

The governor called it “fortuitous” to have such equipment now, as the state faces an unprecedented threat from the spill emanating from BP’s runaway Deepwater Horizon well.

Mote President Kumar Mahadevan said tracking the oil spill was important because it provides a sense of what’s happening on the coastline.

He urged the governor to “stick to your guns” with BP when discussing how much marine research money is necessary to deal with the spill.

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

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