MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
Florida's tourism economy is bracing for a big downturn as oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill looms off its Gulf shores. President Obama visited Pensacola earlier this week, motorcading quickly from downtown to a briefing at the beach.
NPR's Ari Shapiro followed the same route, taking his time and talking with people along the way about life since the spill began.
ARI SHAPIRO: Signs of what is happening are everywhere. Streaks of oil might sneak into the bay one morning, then run out with the tide. There's a sense of fatalism around the city. The goop is hard to find, but emotionally, it's inescapable.
Dave Turner(ph) was standing here at the foot of the Pensacola Bay Bridge when the president went by. Turner is here all day, every day. He has a camping chair and a sleeping bag.
Mr. DAVE TURNER: Tell you the truth, I'm homeless. You know, I'm homeless and I rely on this ocean to support me. And if that oil comes in here, I don't know what I'm going to do. This is where I get my meat from and my exercise. I swim from right here at the end of the seawall, about a quarter of a mile all the way down to the - past the boom all the way to the end.
SHAPIRO: How have you been swimming past the boom?
Mr. TURNER: It's only about 13 inches deep. You know, so I just dive under. And that's where the oil is going to be, too.
SHAPIRO: The boom is a neon yellow and orange ribbon floating around the oyster beds and bird sanctuaries on shore. It looks like a knockoff of an installation by the artist Christo.
When the presidential motorcade started over Pensacola Bay, the SUVs ran parallel to a concrete fishing pier where Simon MacDougal cast his line in the water.
Mr. SIMON MacDOUGAL: This bay feeds a lot of people, and undoubtedly, a lot of people are going to go hungry.
SHAPIRO: A swath of oil more than 60 miles wide has crept just offshore in the last few days. Tracking its movements has become a routine part of the local weather reports. This is the moment before impact, and everyone I met said, at this point, they don't believe that President Obama or anyone else can prevent the worst from happening.
Mr. MacDOUGAL: It's going to come. They can't stop it. They can't stop it. If they could have stopped it, they would have stopped it a month ago. If it keep pouring out, it got to go somewhere. That's just the way life is. It's got to go somewhere.
SHAPIRO: Halfway across Pensacola Bay in the peninsula town of Gulf Breeze, city manager Buzz Eddy is trying hard to stop the oil from reaching his marshes. This town has spent $150,000 on equipment. Eddy expects BP to cover those costs, but he hasn't seen a check yet. And he, too, feels a deep sense of foreboding.
Mr. BUZZ EDDY (City Manager, Gulf Breeze, Florida): Our fire chief and I went out Sunday morning at 5:30, and we both made a prediction where we thought we were going to find oil. And we drove right to that spot, and there were patches of oil there.
SHAPIRO: He wonders if two low-level bureaucrats can figure out where the oil is, why can't the folks in charge? But he doesn't blame President Obama.
Mr. EDDY: I think it's easy to blame the governor of the state of Florida, to blame the senators, to blame the legislators, to blame the president. That doesn't feed the bulldog, in my opinion.
SHAPIRO: In his office, Buzz Eddy has a foul souvenir - a Gatorade bottle with seawater and a brown tar ball bobbing at the surface.
President Obama compared the oil spill to an epidemic. People in Pensacola are bracing for a black plague, but there's no telling how bad it will be.
Sal Pinzone(ph) hopes for the best. His shop is at the end of the president's motorcade route on the Pensacola Pier.
Mr. SAL PINZONE (Shop Owner): 3.75, sir.
Unidentified Man: Here you go.
Mr. PINZONE: Our tourist trade is down about 70 percent. We live on the first three months of summer, and we have to support ourselves right through winter. I mean, everything's in God's hands, my friend. You can't control everything.
SHAPIRO: Under the pier, the sand is soft and white. The state of Florida gave up revenue and jobs from oil and development to preserve these beaches. Here in Pensacola, there are national seashores on either side of town with no buildings at all.
Alice Pine(ph) gazes at the water with her husband, just as they have done for nearly 30 years.
Ms. ALICE PINE: Just been wonderful and it would be a devastating blow to see all of this go.
SHAPIRO: Last Friday, she was swimming in the clear green water when she noticed little spheres the size of lady bugs.
Ms. PINE: They were down maybe like, you know, a foot or so. And I captured a couple. And I did this and rubbed them on my palm of my hand, and it was oil.
SHAPIRO: In the shallows just offshore, a school of nearly 50 stingrays flies through the water in formation. Their wings break the surface as though they're waving.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Pensacola, Florida.
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