Preparing for the Worst

Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard Eighth District External Affairs
Preparing for the WorstAs the threat of oil looms large, Gulf Coast communities aim to stay open for business By Wendy O. Dixon

Oil. It’s on everyone’s mind these days.

There seem to be endless questions regarding the effects from the Deepwater Horizon well that exploded and spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. How many tourism dollars will be lost? What will the long-term environmental impact be? How can I help?

The wind and currents have so far mostly worked in Florida’s favor, keeping the 210,000 gallons of oil spewing from the leak far from the coastline.

Yet some local resort and motel owners, charter fishing captains, restaurateurs and seafood dealers are feeling the effects of the oil spill even though no oil has washed near shore yet. A massive number of tourists have cancelled their summer vacations.

Capt. John Rivers, owner of Mega Bites Inshore Charter in Gulf Breeze, said all of his bookings for June have already canceled even though he doesn’t take his charters within 100 miles of the affected area.

“This could easily cost me all the rest of my of 2010 business,” Rivers said. “If the oil damages the nurseries, 2011 won’t be any better. I’m already looking for work.”

Anticipating further job losses, Gov. Charlie Crist requested $50 million in federal funds to pay unemployment claims brought on by the oil spill.

Though the British Petroleum Co. (BP) is ultimately responsible, Crist urged President Barack Obama to approve the measure so the state can help assist affected workers while it waits for the company to reimburse.

Walton County has hired Destin law firm Matthews & Hawkins to seek recovery for all clean up costs, damages and lost revenues from BP and other parties responsible for the spill.

“Our tourism business sector is already suffering from the effects of the spill which has far reaching economic impact. As a result, Walton County stands to lose significant tax revenues,” said Dana Matthews, a senior partner at the firm.

The St. Joe Company has hired Shaw Group, an environmental law firm, to prepare mitigation against BP for any damage the wayward oil will have on it’s beachfront properties in Northwest Florida. 

Local innovative solutions

The effectiveness of miles of boom placed in the Gulf to hold back and gather oil as BP searched for a means to contain the flow has been hindered by wind and waves.

Locally, C.W. Roberts Contracting Vice President Darryl Carpenter and sub-contractor Otis Goodson demonstrated the use of Coastal Bermuda and Bahia hay to assist in the defense against the oil spill in the Gulf. Walton County commissioners approved the plan and hay bales are being stockpiled and have already been placed on beaches.

“We can disperse it on the spill that’s out there now and it will soak it up,” Carpenter said. “If it washes up on shore, it’s just like seaweed, you can just use conventional beach cleaning equipment and just pick it up.”

He’s received calls from all over the nation offering hay, and the company has boats and equipment that can be ready in less than a half-day’s notice.

“We would like to be given a chance to go out to the spill and see if it works,” he added. “If it does, great. If it doesn’t, we’ll go home.”

The three-phase plan approved by the Walton County commissioners calls for spotting oil as it approaches but is still miles offshore. Barges equipped with blowers would spray hay in the water, which will clump together with the oil, making it easier to remove. Plans have also been made to lay concrete jersey walls to protect South Walton’s dune lakes.

Regional Utilities and Murphy Oil have also provided 10,000 feet of boom that is ready to be deployed.

Area salons are participating in the Hair for Oil Spills Program aimed at helping collect hair and fur to be used in the assembly of hair booms, which are made of nylon nets stuffed with hair and animal fur and can absorb oil.

Stephanie’s House of Style and Hello Beautiful hair salon, both in Crestview, are collecting hair from their salons to aid Matter of Trust, the ecological organization that implemented the Hair for Oil Spills Program. The Hampton Inn Fort Walton Beach, also in partnership with Matter of Trust, recently sponsored a “Hair Because We Care” Cut-a-Thon, offering free haircuts to contribute to the cause. 

 “We live and work here and want to do everything we can to help ensure that we preserve this beautiful region,” said Hampton Inn Director of Sales Jeniffer Ward. 

Area volunteers in the cut-a-thon included stylists from Smart Style Family Salon, Raspberry Attic, Brava Hair Studio, Delores Delaney The Salon, Lather Lounge, Sheer Madness, Salon Chic and A Heavenly Place for Hair. Area businesses and individuals are contributing towards services, supplies, transportation and storage so the booms can be made on-site and then shipped out as quickly as possible.

Beaches are still open

As Emerald Coast goes to press, area officials are using aggressive marketing tactics to reach tourists all over the world and assure them the Northwest Florida beaches have been unaffected by the oil spill.

“The daily headlines might be full of doom and gloom, but what our visitors are seeing are emerald waters and white sand beaches,” said Tracy Louthain, director of communications for the Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council. “Our primary message is that our destination is open for enjoyment.”

Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, sees a state advertising campaign as essential to saving Panhandle businesses that rely on summer travel to make ends meet.

“We can’t wait for a year to BP to cut us a check,” Dover said. “We need the money now. Yesterday was too late.”

Dover said Panhandle occupancy rates had been expected to be around 90 percent this season, but have dropped to “the teens” as guests cancel reservations based, so far, on fear that beaches eventually will be oil spoiled.

BP has promised $25 million to enable Visit FLORIDA to create an emergency marketing campaign. The state has also received a $25 million budget from BP to handle the cleanup.

Lodging partners are preparing for the summer season with a host of travel packages and events, including sand sculpture demonstrations along Rosemary Beach, Le Grande Cirque performances in Sandestin, movie nights in WaterColor, and the Digital Graffiti festival in Alys Beach, among others.

The Tourist Development Council posts daily updates of and images on its website ( to keep visitors informed about beach conditions and the county’s preparedness. Individual resort companies are also posting updates regularly.

“We put up photos every day to give them a visual reference of what our beaches are like,” said ResortQuest CEO Park Brady. “We’ve modified our cancellation policy. You can cancel up to arrival or during your stay if the beaches close.”

Laurie Hobbs, director of public relations and marketing communications for Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, said even though the resort’s call volume is up, it has had few cancellations. She attributes the minimal interruption in reservations to the resort’s assertive marketing and communication strategy, guest loyalty and a packed calendar of events that have not been cancelled.

For Mike Chouri, general manager for the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort and Spa, attitude is everything.

“The beaches were beautiful before, they are beautiful today and they will be beautiful tomorrow,” he said. “In part, it’s about attitude, and we need to have a positive one.”


What to know:

• For updated information on Florida’s response to the oil spill, call the Florida oil spill information line at (888) 337-3569 between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. central time.
• For updates and images of the beaches, visit or
• For current maps and projections for the oil spill’s location and potential movement, as well as information citizens can use to protect themselves from fraud and the hotline number for filing recovery claims, visit
• The agencies involved in the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have established a Joint Information Center, which coordinates information, updates and details related to a response. Public inquiries for further information may be directed to the Joint Information Center at (985) 902-5231 or (985) 902-5240. For updates, visit



How to help:

• The British Petroleum Company (BP) has established a community outreach site in Pensacola and needs volunteers to help rehabilitate wildlife. Call (866) 448-5816.
• For information on the Hair for Oil Spills Program, which collects cut hair to be used to absorb oil, visit
• Phone numbers have been issued through the Joint Information Center for the following inquiries:
Report oiled wildlife: (866) 557-1401
Discuss spill-related damage: (800) 440-0858
Report oiled shoreline or request volunteer information: (866) 448-5816

More useful numbers:

• Submit your vessel as a vessel of opportunity skimming system: (281) 366-5511
• Submit a claim for damages: (281) 366-5511
• Facebook: Deepwater Horizon Response
• Twitter: Oil_Spill_2010

—The News Service of Florida and Zandra Wolfgram contributed to this report.