A Community Unites

Coming TogetherWith no quick fix in sight, residents are uniting in response to the massive Gulf oil spill and preparing for the long haul
Story by Wendy O. Dixon

It was just a matter of time. When the Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded, killing 11 workers and spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, we knew the toxic mess eventually would drift our way and make landfall.

The past few months have been some of the most frustrating ever for Gulf Coast residents. As waves pushed patches of oil and marble-sized tar balls onto area shores, more and more fishing spots were closed. As oil mousse created a toxic odor and mixed with sea grass, residents grew more and more angry and impatient. And this was just the beginning. When the heavy surface oil arrives, its effects on the beaches could be catastrophic.

The oil approached just as locals were beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel after a long recession. Even if the oil goes away tomorrow, the stigma will last well into the future. The people of the Emerald Coast are bracing themselves for what is threatening to come — oil-soaked wildlife, devastating tourism losses and an annihilated fishing industry — by being proactive, taking action into their own hands and coming together to protect their most precious resource — and a fragile economy.

As this issue of Emerald Coast Magazine went to press, oil reported on the water’s surface remained 1 to 7 miles off Walton County’s shoreline. But area officials weren’t waiting for BP to clean things up.

Representatives from eight Northwest Florida counties met as a united front with BP vice president Bryant Chapman on June 23 to say they weren’t going to wait for permission to clean their own beaches.

“We’ve put a great plan together,” Okaloosa County Commission Chairman Wayne Harris told Chapman. “Now you need to pay for it.”

In early May, Walton County began stockpiling large amounts of material and equipment to clean up the beaches. Using funds from revenue reserves, the county didn’t wait for a check from BP.

“When I first briefed the Board of County Commissioners in May, I advised them that while we intended to try and seek state approval, I would not wait for approval if the danger became imminent,” Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson says.

Adkinson addressed the issue of compensation to Chapman, who agreed that the county’s actions were prudent.

“I see you nodding, but I want to hear you say it for the record,” Adkinson told Chapman regarding reimbursement for expenses.

Adkinson says he’s confident that if anyone gets reimbursed, Walton County will.

“But until I see the money,” he says, “I’ll be skeptical.”

Walton County initiated a local task force to address the growing health and safety concerns related to the oil spill. It now produces independent air- and water-quality testing. The county has deployed additional crews from public works, and can deploy low-risk county inmates who currently provide services throughout the county parks, recreation, and beach path areas.

Okaloosa County is also spending its reserves on clean-up efforts.

Dino Villani, Okaloosa County’s public safety director and incident commander during a state of emergency, which Gov. Charlie Crist declared on April 30, says the county’s expenditures could easily wipe out its reserves.

“It’s much different than a hurricane, where we are the command and the state (offers) the support,” Villani says. “In this case, it is the opposite — the unified command (led by the U.S. Coast Guard, which has direct jurisdiction to run the command and BP, which is the responsible party) is managing the incident. Because of that, we’ve had less control to implement protective measures and responses that we
deem appropriate.”

John Finch, the owner of Sunshine Shuttle in Santa Rosa Beach, also tired of waiting for an answer from BP. He organized a consortium of scientists, engineers and companies to create the Gulf Recovery Team LLC.

“I’m a small-business owner who moved here from New York City, but I’m originally from Memphis (Tenn.) and came here every summer,” Finch says. “I remember (how much of an impression this beach made on me) as a child. And I’m not just going to allow this to be taken away from me without a fight.”

Representatives from three of the consortium’s companies presented their proposals during a Walton County town meeting. Finch says his team has equipment ready to be deployed immediately.

“We have a piece of equipment that can suck 5,000 gallons of oil per minute and separate the oil from the water and return the water into the Gulf,” Finch says. “If BP really wanted to, they could have deployed 10 of these to use.”

Other groups are uniting in an effort to prevent what they see as the potential for future environmental disasters.

Hands Across The Sand, an environmental group opposed to offshore oil drilling, began locally last year and has now gone worldwide. South Walton restaurant owner Dave Rauschkolb formed the group in 2009 after the Florida Legislature considered lifting the state’s ban on oil drilling off its coasts. As a result, 10,000 people gathered on beaches around the state in February, joining hands in protest. The group sponsored an international protest in June in an attempt to end offshore oil drilling, with more than 700 locations across the United States and 20 countries participating.

“The very thing we feared when we began all this has come right to our doorstep,” Rauschkolb says. “Here, the business has been holding up. A few tar balls have come to the beach. But now we’ve got to start talking about really changing energy policy in this country.”

The area’s tourism marketing and public relations efforts have also been augmented in light of the oil spill.

The Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council’s new executive director, Mark Bellinger, who came on board May 13, has been having emergency marketing meetings to plan how to counter the hit that the tourism industry has taken as a result of the oil spill.

“We had our first meeting May 19 to listen to the community about how to market our county,” Bellinger says. “The national press was paying so much attention to Louisiana and Alabama at that time. We had to counter act what the national press was saying about us.”

The Tourist Development Council’s initial marketing campaign was called “Our Coast is Clear.”

“But when the oil sheen came near our coast in the first week of June, we had to terminate that campaign and go with a “Beyond the Beach” marketing and public relations campaign to promote everything else to do beyond the beaches — our attractions, museums, cultural events, state and county parks, festivals, shopping and bay side activities,” Bellinger explains. “We’ve always said that there are other amenities, but at this time they are more prevalent.”

Don Amunds, vice chairman of the Okaloosa County Commission, says he has seen the community mourn together and work together.

“I’ve seen people crying. It’s really been an emotional roller coaster for a lot of our citizens,” Amunds says. “It’s a helpless feeling for the community and for the elected officials at times, but everyone wants to be a part of the solution. We’ve had more people volunteer than ever before.”

As so often happens in the wake of a devastating hurricane, Amunds says he sees people uniting and neighbor helping neighbor to address the oil-spill devastation.

“It’s helped the governments come together like never before,” he adds. “We’re all in the same boat.”

The Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce’s 2010 chairman, Chad Hamilton, says he sees a community where residents support each other and manage to find the resilience to rebound from adversity.

“I am certain that the community is coming together during this crisis,” Hamilton says. “This is a very trying and frustrating time for all of our community because of the uncertainty that the threat presents. However, I have seen many more instances of our community banding together to help respond to the threat itself, aid our neighbors who are directly and immediately affected, or rescue wildlife, than I have seen of rage or sulking.”

First City Bank of Florida and the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge partnered to create Save Our Beaches and Bays in an effort to ensure the safety and recovery of the wildlife that is affected by the oil spill.

Betty Brassell, senior vice president of marketing and business development at First City Bank, is leading those efforts.

“We recognized that we better do something early and quickly,” Brassell says. “We created the You Save, We Give campaign, of which $5 of a new relationship package, which includes a high-interest savings account, will go toward the animal rescue efforts. We are also hosting a variety of fundraising efforts through the end of the year. Everybody’s winning because we’re all contributing to a worthy cause.”

Florida’s fishing industry is suffering not because of the oil, but because of the ban that shuts down the fishing areas and the nation’s perception of the cleanliness of the seafood in the Gulf.

Jerry Sansom, executive director of Organized Fishermen of Florida, says that even though their seafood is perfectly safe to eat, commercial fishermen can’t move their product.

“So far, the actual spill has had minimal impact on the fisheries,” he says. “The problem is the perception that if (seafood) is from the Gulf, it’s dripping with oil. That’s very wrong, and its primarily because of the media.”

Organized Fishermen is working with the Florida Department of Agriculture to create the Florida Gulf Safe Program, which ensures that Gulf seafood is safe for consumption and is labeled as such.

“If you’re at all concerned about the impacts on our industry,” Sansom says, “eat our seafood.”

Pensacola-based commercial fisherman Donald Waters was fishing for red snapper in late June but noted that many of his fellow fishermen were not. Even though 60 percent of the Gulf is open for fishing, Waters says, many have opted to work for BP, causing the supply of red snapper and other seafood to decrease, affecting the entire industry.

“Restaurants aren’t able to have enough supply because we don’t have enough fish to carry up North,” Waters says.

BP has hired fishermen to “be prepared,” according to Waters, but many of them aren’t doing anything.

“I honestly think BP is trying to do the right thing,” he says. “But they’re in the oil business, not the fishing business.”

Bob Zales II, president of the National Association of Charter Boat Operators and president of the Panama City Boatmen Association, was hired by BP to compensate him for his lost salary as a charter boat captain.

“The charter business is down 75 percent, business is pretty well shot,” Zales says. “So more vessels are getting involved with the BP program, where they pay us to learn how to deploy booms and skimmers. If we didn’t have the opportunity to work for BP, we wouldn’t be able to work.”

The Southeastern Fisheries Association, based in Tallahassee, represents a small coalition that works with county governments and the fishing industry. Bob Jones, executive director of the association, is working to make the claims process better but admits it’s not working.

“We’re trying to get people who are (already) qualified to save birds certified, and that’s not working,” Jones says. “These people are from the Australian Seabird Rescue and have been rescuing pelicans for years.

They came here at their own expense and tried to get certified in Louisiana and were turned away.”

In the 47 years he has been in the fishing industry, Jones says he has never seen anything like what’s happening to the people of the Gulf Coast.

“My sister went to the beach at Pensacola and said there were so many people with tears,” he says. “That’s the part that’s being missed. These are the beach people who love their beach. It’s just killing them to see what’s happening. It choked me up pretty bad.”

Jones fears the catastrophe will forever change Florida.

“I don’t believe too much of what of BP has to say,” Jones says. “I want to know everything that’s going on, and I have a feeling we’re not getting everything we need to know.”

And it’s not just the fishing industry that is trying to stay afloat. Nonprofit animal-rescue organizations are barely getting by and are at risk of closing their doors to animals in need.

Alaqua Animal Refuge in Freeport, a no-kill animal shelter in Destin, takes in and adopts homeless dogs, cats, horses and even emus. But the shelter is being forced to refuse many animals because of a lack of funding.

Laurie Hood, founder of the shelter, is working with a bare bones staff to rescue, rehabilitate and adopt the animals. She says her organization, which operates solely on donations, takes in around 100 animals per month under normal circumstances.

“But lately we’ve gotten 2,000 requests per month,” she says. “The tourism stopping has affected all the businesses. People are foreclosing on their homes and can’t keep their pets.”

Hood says that even after area businesses were beginning to recover from a bad economy, the news about the oil spill dealt a blow from which organizations like hers may not recover.

“We noticed that when there was talk of closing East Pass (in Destin) the whole area just died,” she says. “Our donations have completely stopped. The mailbox is empty.”

Hood hopes the community will remember the domestic animals that suffer even if they are not directly affected by the oil spill.

“We are in desperate need of operating money,” Hood says. “We need to feed and care for the animals. We also need volunteers and need for people to adopt these pets.”

Okaloosa County Commissioner Amunds fears there has been a shift in focus to marine wildlife directly affected by the oil spill, leaving no-kill shelters that protect domesticated animals to fend for themselves.

“You see (on the news) those pelicans covered in oil and think, ‘That’s terrible,’” he says. “But we forget about the dog next door.”

Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge is prepared to get involved with the rescue of sea turtles and marine mammals. So far, it has responded to five oiled birds, three of which were taken to the refuge for triage and then sent to the Pensacola Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, contracted by BP, is running the facility.

“We are the response team permitted to respond to marine mammals and sea turtles, whether they have oil or not,” says Patrick Gault, biologist and assistant director at the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge. “Because BP is supposed to pay for everything, we cannot solicit funds. But if people want to make a donation, we ask that they make a general donation rather than designating it to oil cleanup, which makes it difficult for us.”

Gault adds that the refuge has not yet received funding from BP, but that the facility is ready to respond when needed.

While Alaqua Animal Refuge rescues domesticated animals and Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge is attempting to save wildlife, the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center near Freeport is tending to the children. Christy Scally, director of the center, says many area students visiting the center are concerned about the oil spill and want both answers and knowledge on how to help.

“Since the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center’s mission is to educate the children in the Panhandle schools about the environment, we are doing everything we can to provide the students the information and tools to deal with the oil spill,” Scally says. “As such, we are including lessons on oil as part of our formal curriculum.”

Many people aren’t aware of the services the center provides, Scally says. And they, too, are in need of funding. In 2009, the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center averaged 140 students every school day from a five-county area (Walton, Bay, Okaloosa, Holmes and Leon), instructing more than 4,000 students in its first year of operations.

“The hands-on, environmentally focused lessons are geared to help children feel a connection with nature, a love for all life, and to encourage innovative ideas on how to better preserve and protect the environment,” Scally says. “While we are efficient and frugal, the scope of our educational efforts is regional and requires annual funding of about $1 million.”

In an effort to boost tourism, the Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau held a concert series called “Rock the Beach” starting June 27 with Kenny Loggins and the Doobie Brothers performing. The series was part of the original marketing plan presented to the state by area tourist development councils and was funded by emergency advertising-campaign funds, part of the $25 million that BP gave the state to counter the effects of the oil spill on tourism. More than 7,000 people attended the first concert in the series, and donations were collected to help the Emerald Coast Wildlife Foundation.

Musician and Gulf Coast lover Jimmy Buffett gave a free concert in Gulf Shores, Ala. on July 11 to promote awareness and tourism in the area. As Buffett entertained 35,000 fans, he changed a portion of the lyrics in his famous song “Margaritaville” by singing, “Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame. But I know it’s all BP’s fault.” The concert was broadcast live on cable network CMT.

Though the threat of catastrophe looms large, the communities of the Emerald Coast are finding unprecedented unity.

“One way or another, we will be forever changed by the oil spill,” says Hamilton, chairman of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce. “We have evaded a significant impact from the spill thus far, but the uncertainty as to whether this is a one-year, three-year, five-year or multi-decade impact is what makes this so difficult.”

Hamilton cautions that the unknown and the gloomy potential of adverse effects from the oil spill make it difficult to endure.

“We cannot liken this to the impact of a hurricane because we have a historical perspective on how to recover from a storm and comfort in that we can recover from a storm,” he says. “An oil spill of this magnitude presents far different threats of damage, many of which may require us to have the endurance to hold on through nature’s repair of the ecological damage.”

But like so many residents of the Emerald Coast, Hamilton has hope the community will overcome this latest threat.

“I have faith that our community will respond with the same character that we always have,” he says. “I have only known us to become stronger and more supportive of each other each time we face adversity. I have no doubts that we will support each other through the oil spill crisis.”

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.