Special Reports

With leak sealed, a glimmer of glee in the Panhandle

PENSACOLA — The tarballs that first started washing ashore Perdido Key Beach in early June have been largely plucked up in this sleepy beachside town that bills itself as “The Lost Island.”

Just as lost has been the tide of summer tourists that once packed into local hotels and beachside bars.

So it was cause for celebration when locals and tourists alike learned that for the first time in nearly three months, since oil started gushing into the Gulf, not a droplet of oil was coming out of the spill site, which was sealed off Thursday with a 150,000-pound containment cap.

“We’re going to celebrate for the Gulf Coast,” Elizabeth Fuller, 38, said as she bought a round of frozen daiquiris for two of her friends at the Flora-Bama Lounge.

At the popular outdoor bar on the Florida-Alabama line, country music blared, folks danced barefoot on the bar’s wooden planked floors and, for the first time in a while, there seemed cause to hope that more beachgoers would return to an area hurting for tourist dollars.

“We’re here and we’re here to spend,” Fuller said over the tune of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” playing in the background. “That’s the best way we can support our Gulf Coast right now.”

From beachside toasts to impromptu dances, the scene at Flora-Bama was one that played throughout the area’s coastal communities upon hearing news that oil had stopped gushing for the first time in nearly three months.

Sure, BP officials and even President Barack Obama spoke with guarded optimism about a final solution being in sight, but for now, after weeks of worrying, locals and visitors alike savored the fact that the oil was finally being contained.

“One less drop is one less drop, and I’ll take that,” Chris Keller, 23, a Birmingham native, said as he strolled along the beach.

Even before the first batch of tarballs washed ashore in Florida, coastal communities like Perdido Key have been living with the agony of tarnished beaches and sluggish tourism ever since the April 20th oil rig explosion.

Business has been down by 30 percent on Perdido Key’s 18-mile stretch of beaches, according to the local chamber of commerce. During the July 4th weekend, most condo rentals and hotels would be completely sold out, but this year lodging owners struggled to reach 50 percent capacity.

So it came as no surprise to her staff when Susan Carleson, a Perdido Key vacation real-estate agent, starting wiggling and laughing in her chair when she got the news that the containment cap was holding up.

“I’m doing a happy dance right now,” Carleson said, as she shimmied about. “I predict the phone will resume ringing and the people will start coming back.”

And just a day after news of the oil leak being contained was announced, some have already started making plans to come back.

At Pensacola Beach’s Paradise Inn, a one-story peach-colored hotel that boasts having “the charm of old Florida,” phones started ringing early Friday morning from customers trying to find out if rooms were available.

“This is the happiest it’s been around here in 87 days,” said the hotel’s general manager Dana Powell said, the hotel’s general manager.

Normally the inn is booked completely during the summer season, but these days it’s been a struggle to rent out half of the hotel’s 53 rooms.

“We’ve seen a lot of bad days, so I’m going to hold onto this optimism for as long as I can,” Powell said. “At least there’s an end goal in sight. Before, it was stop the spill and get things cleaned. Now it seems we just have to focus on the clean-up.”