Awaiting the Oil on Florida's Panhandle

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Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Workers remove small globs of oil that have washed up on Pensacola Beach from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on June 5, 2010.

Pensacola, Fla., boasts some of the world's whitest beaches. So when any sign of the massive oil spill out in the Gulf of Mexico washes up on Florida's Panhandle shore — some tar balls here, a few sludge-coated bottles and a crude-smeared tire over there — it's an alarming harbinger of the petro-slick that local officials say is now as close as a mile from Pensacola.

Clean-up workers fanned out on the beaches over the weekend, looking like oversized seagulls in their white haz-mat suits. But they couldn't eliminate the psychological effect that the growing presence of black flotsam is having on locals — and on the region's first wave of summer tourists. "You come [to live] here not because of the money but because of the lifestyle," says Nathan Holler, a former realtor who, after the market collapsed in the recession, settled in Pensacola to open a hot dog deli near the ocean. "You find your niche and then, all of a sudden, it looks like it can all be taken away."

But are those fears exaggerated? It's still not certain that the BP oil spill, despite being the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, will rob the Panhandle of its summer — the season that accounts for 90% of the region's all-important tourist dollars. The oil slick's outer reach is indeed scarily close; but weather and oceanic forecasts indicate it could swing west again this week, and it may stay away from north Florida indefinitely. Even if the slick does reach the coast, it's described as a light sheen, more manageable than the glutinous sheet tarring the marshes and pelicans of southeast Louisiana, some 50 miles from BP's Deepwater Horizon rig. Since it exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers, that drill pipe has been spewing at least 12,000 and possibly more than 25,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf each day.

After a failed attempt last weekend to cork the leak with heavy mud, BP finally had some good news this weekend: a cap placed over the pipe is now siphoning as much as half of the oil up to the surface. But the company won't be able to stop the flow, emanating from 5,000 feet below the sea, until relief wells can be completed sometime in August. That means about 10 more weeks of spill and that much more angst for Gulf Coast communities like Pensacola — and for officials like Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who are caught in a political juggling act of battling the spill while trying to convince tourists that it won't affect their seaside vacations. "I've got the National Guard and 220,000 feet of containment boom ready to go out there," Crist told TIME. "But we're also stressing that our beaches are as beautiful as ever and open for business."

BP last month gave Florida $25 million for advertising to get that message out to the rest of the country, as well as another $25 million for spill preparedness. But last week Crist, under criticism for not ratcheting up the Sunshine State's frustration over the spill's threat, asked BP for $50 million more to protect Florida's 770 miles of Gulf shore and aid residents impacted by the catastrophe. As more tar balls began rolling onto Panhandle beaches, he also said he needed as many as five times the 20 oil-skimming boats the U.S. Coast Guard has promised him. At the same time, while much of the gulf fishing to the west of Florida has been suspended due to the spill, Panhandle fishing boats — which may actually benefit as fish move east away from the oil plumes — were hauling in the oysters that the state is letting them catch early this season because of the oil scare.

What's also uncertain at this point is whether the Gulf's loop current will carry a chunk of the spill down to the Florida Keys and around the peninsula to Miami and the U.S. Atlantic coast. Last month scientists and U.S. officials seemed certain the loop current phenomenon was inevitable; but then the current began carrying the oil westward again. The longer the spill continues, however, the better the chances that the current will eventually carry at least some of it southward.

Back on the Panhandle, demonstrators protested outside BP gas stations, among them a local Elvis impersonator who sang riffs like "a hunka hunka burnin' oil." "We're all so mad at BP," says Holler. "BP can pay us, but how do you put a price tag on being able to get up in the morning and go surfing before going to work and after work go out and go fishing and smell the salt air?" But then he stops and concedes Florida's own culpability. A dependence on its $60 billion tourism means it has balked at the offshore drilling that Gulf states like Louisiana and Mississippi have embraced; but its residents still refuse to support energy-saving measures like public transportation, while their car obsession keeps deep, dangerous rigs like BP's working overtime. "If we get tar balls for five years, maybe that's a good thing," Holler says. "That'll be a reminder for us to figure out what we can do now to make sure this never happens again." Pensacola business owner Michael Penzone, who runs a public fishing pier, agrees: "I don't know anybody who doesn't have a car. That's why [oil companies] are drilling a mile down."

On Saturday, perhaps the most famous face of the Florida lifestyle, singer Jimmy Buffett, took a helicopter ride with Crist to assess the slick's proximity to Pensacola's beaches. Buffett is set to open a new hotel there this month — named Margaritaville, after his most famous hit — and tar balls aren't exactly what he wants on the brochures. Then again, as Holler notes, they're a reminder that even if Floridians do dodge the spill, they can't go on believing they have as much birthright to a full tank of gasoline as they have, say, to a cheeseburger in paradise.