Florida Hopes for Best but Braces for Oil Spill

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Brian Blanco / AP; Daniel Beltra / Greenpeace / Reuters

Florida Governor Charlie Crist addresses the media. Right, ships make their way through the Gulf of Mexico oil slick

Floridians breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday when the Coast Guard confirmed that the dozens of tar balls found washed up near Key West this week were not from the massive BP oil spill out in the Gulf of Mexico. But it was the briefest of respites. Almost simultaneously, the Coast Guard said tendrils of the BP spill had entered the Gulf's Loop Current, which could carry it not only toward Florida's west coast but down to the Florida Keys, and perhaps on to Miami's beaches, beginning as early as next week. Said Coast Guard Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft: "It would take an act of God" to avoid that scenario.

Like an environmental version of the hurricanes that ravaged the Gulf States in 2005, the epic spill from the Deepwater Horizon rig seems almost certain to foul every coastal corner it can. After paralyzing Louisiana's commercial fishing industry, it is threatening Florida's $60 billion tourism business. But as hoteliers and snorkelers scan the Gulf's horizon for the rust-colored plague, there's debate over what kind of impact the Sunshine State should expect. Florida Senator Bill Nelson, a critic of offshore oil drilling, said, "While I always hope for the best, this is looking like really out-of-control bad." But the Obama Administration tried to calm the worst fears, insisting that what's likely to hit the state will be a lighter, greatly diminished sheen that should be more easily managed than the slick's major portion to the west.

Either way, Florida is struggling to persuade tourists to visit. "What we're bracing for mostly is people canceling reservations over a false impression that we've got some sort of [Exxon] Valdez catastrophe washing up on our beautiful beaches," says Carol Dover, head of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association in Tallahassee. "I'm not going to say we won't see anything, but officials are telling me that if we do, it will be minimal. We're fighting hysterical hype here as well as the spill."

Dover is most worried about the Panhandle, which takes in 90% of its crucial tourism revenue during the summer, and where some hotels have already seen 50% cancellation because of oil-spill concerns. Since the Keys and South Florida do the bulk of their tourism business from late fall to early spring, the disaster shouldn't have as devastating an effect, at least this year.

Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said that while the Loop Current is certain to snare some of the spill, by the time any oil reaches Florida, it "would be highly weathered, and the natural processes of evaporation and dispersion would reduce [its] volume significantly." She added that it would also be "significantly diminished by ongoing chemical dispersant application." To help market that message to the rest of the world, BP has given Florida $25 million, as well as another $25 million to aid the state's oil spill prevention and cleanup efforts.

Still, while Governor Charlie Crist said he was receiving the same sanguine information from federal officials, he added that he was poised to extend his state of emergency, which now covers the Panhandle down to the Tampa Bay area, to the Keys and South Florida. And Nelson, as well as most environmentalists, remained skeptical, warning against trying to downplay an accident that — as new deep-sea videos released by Nelson's office vividly show — is pouring tens of thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico each day. "We're still concerned about the impacts even the so-called sheen could have," says Nelson spokesman Bill McLaughlin. "And nobody knows what all the dispersants might do" to Florida's delicate marine and coastal ecology, especially its coral reefs.

Nelson is pointing to a computer model as well as a study released this week by marine scientists at the University of South Florida in Tampa that predict a ring of oil encircling the entire Florida peninsula by the end of the month. That image could provide even more ammunition against the Obama Administration's plans to expand offshore drilling. Crist, who bolted the Republican Party last month to run as an independent for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat this fall, had in recent years been more open to increased crude production well off the state's coast. But the BP spill has made him reconsider. "More regulation" of Big Oil, he told the Miami Herald this week, "is certainly necessary."

The spill has even prompted a rapprochement of sorts between Washington and Havana. The State Department revealed this week that officials from Cuba, whose economy depends inordinately on tourism, requested advice from U.S. scientists about how to protect the island's coral reefs should the Loop Current deposit some of the slick their way.

Meanwhile, Crist is set to activate the Florida National Guard when the spill, mean or sheen, arrives. Ironically, he said that in the best-case scenario, the troops would only have to clean up more easily retrievable and less eco-damaging ... tar balls. If so, Floridians could probably breathe another, longer sigh of relief.