Gulf Oil Slick Drifts Closer To Florida's Beaches

Florida has been working hard to remind potential visitors that it's still a good vacation destination, despite the Gulf oil spill. The state's tourism bureau has been running ads saying its beaches are "oil-free." But with the increasing likelihood that oil could appear off the panhandle by this weekend, Gov. Crist says the state may have to "rebrand."

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Renee Montagne.

Oil is continuing to wash up, this morning, in new places all along the Gulf of Mexico. Globs of oil have begun to come ashore in Alabama and are expected to do so soon along beaches in Florida's Panhandle.

NPR's Greg Allen reports that the first tar balls would come as a major blow to a state where tourism is the number one industry.

GREG ALLEN: Memorial Day kicks off the summer vacation season, an important time for beach communities along Florida's Panhandle. Last week, the state unveiled a new ad campaign, funded by BP.

(Soundbite of an ad)

Unidentified Man: You're thinking summer vacation and about what's happening in the Gulf. You've got a few questions. Here are a few answers. Our beautiful coast is clear. There is no oil on the world-famous beaches of northwest Florida.

ALLEN: Yet. Given enough time, researchers say oil from the spill - now the largest in U.S. history - will turn up on most beaches along the Gulf of Mexico and even some in the Atlantic. And yesterday, Florida's Governor Charlie Crist confirmed some long-feared news.

Governor CHARLIE CRIST (Republican, Florida): The latest projections from NOAA indicate a shift in the winds and the currents, projecting whether oil from the leading edge - weathered oil, rather, from the leading edge of the oil plume, could impact the Florida Panhandle as early as this week, possibly in a day or two.

ALLEN: Fishermen and state officials said they spotted patches of oil sheen several miles off shore. Also, the governor said thousands of tar balls. State officials say they've already deployed more than 50 miles of boom along Florida's Panhandle and are working to put out more. As is the case in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, the boom is being used mostly to protect inlets and passes, to keep the oil out of sensitive estuaries and coastal wetlands.

Left largely unprotected are beaches and barrier islands. Authorities say it's easier to clean oil from sand than from marshes. But that's not sat well with local officials like Buck Lee. Lee is executive director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority, which oversees several miles of Pensacola beaches.

He says BP and the Coast Guard have not responded to his request to use boom to protect the beaches. Instead, he says, they'll try to skim the weathered oil from the water before it hits land.

Mr. BUCK LEE (Executive Director, Santa Rosa Island Authority): Once the skimming does not work, so the gulf coming in is upon the beach, then you'll have subcontractors out here picking up the oil or tar balls on our beach.

ALLEN: Lee says in Pensacola, the Memorial Day weekend this year was one of the best ever. The question now, is how prospective visitors will respond to the news when tar balls begin washing up. Lee is hopeful.

Mr. LEE: I think if you tell them the truth and if you can show them in a picture that yes, out of our eight miles, we've got, let's say, a quarter of a mile and it's at this location where we have some tar balls and the rest of the beach is open, then they'll understand.

ALLEN: Lee says Pensacola is providing updates of beach conditions on its Web site. It's also installing live Web cams so prospective visitors can judge conditions for themselves.

Meanwhile, Florida will continue it's $25 million ad campaign aimed at countering the negative news and luring visitors to the Sunshine State. Once the inevitable happens and oil hits Florida, Governor Crist says the state is ready to pull the ads and produce new ones.

Gov. CRIST: Obviously, you would have to have truth in advertising. So we want to make sure that if it does come on our shore that we redirect the message; that it is appropriate, that it is accurate, and discusses where it is - maybe more importantly, where it is not.

ALLEN: With the failure of efforts to plug the leak, BP and federal officials say that it appears now oil will continue to gush into the Gulf at least until August, when relief wells may be completed.

University of South Florida oceanographer Robert Weisberg says that's bad news for Florida communities that thought they might not be touched by the spill. Once an oil slick hits shallow water, he's says, it tends to stay there and will likely continue moving east and south along the Florida peninsula.

Dr. ROBERT WEISBERG (Oceanographer, University of South Florida): If this continues on through August and we put more and more oil in shallow water, then there's a good chance that that oil will eventually even get to where I live.

ALLEN: And he lives in St. Petersburg, halfway down Florida's Gulf Coast.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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