By VOA’s Brian Wagner | Pensacola Beach, Florida – Tourists are hitting the beaches in Florida for the start of summer, even as tar balls from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill wash up on shore. The clean-up effort, which may expand over the coming months.
Seven weeks after an undersea oil well blew out in the Gulf of Mexico, Florida is beginning to feel the impact. Louisiana has been hardest hit by the disaster, but oil residue is continuing to spread across the Gulf.
Small tar balls have been washing up on the shores of Pensacola Beach for several days. Now, crews are placing layers of containment boom across Pensacola Bay to protect against an oil sheen that may hit later this week.
Tourists worry it may be a final chance to enjoy the area’s famous white sand beaches for the season. Krisilyn Patton is visiting from nearby Alabama.
“I think it’s coming, and we wanted to get one last trip down here before it gets really bad,” said Patton. “They are talking about it getting here in the next few days or so, with the sheen coming on shore.”
Clean-up crews have deployed across the beach, where they use netting to sift sand and pick up tar balls by hand. Only steps away, tourists are working on their tans or jumping in the water to swim or surf.
For weeks, Florida has been preparing for the worst, amid fears that oil contamination could ruin the beaches and destroy the tourist industry. Crews and equipment were ready when oil hit Pensacola Beach, which includes the national park grounds of Gulf Islands Seashore.
Park ranger Katie Lawhon is helping to coordinate the response inside the park.
“Within 90 minutes of finding oil on Fort Pickens, we had clean-up crews and assessment crews in place cleaning up oil,” said Lawhon. “So all that careful planning really paid off with a quick response.”
The question now is how long the response will have to continue. BP has yet to stop the leak from the damaged undersea well. Officials say even after the well is fixed, massive amounts of oil will remain scattered across the Gulf waters.
Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen is overseeing the government’s response to the disaster.
“Dealing with the oil spill on the surface is going to go on for a couple of months,” explained Allen. “After that, it will be taken care of. I agree with you — long-term issues of restoring the environment and the habitats and stuff will be years.”
The immediate concern in Florida is how to handle the intense heat of summer. Clean-up crews must work for short periods and rest often. Officials are using machines to pick up debris when possible, but much of the work is done by hand. Park ranger Katie Lawhon says the weather is a growing obstacle for workers.
“We have heat indexes of 130 degrees to 140 degrees [54 to 60 degrees Celsius], depending on whether you are in the parking lot or the beach,” added Lawhon. “Believe it or not, it is hotter where the waves are breaking. So it is a big issue, and safety is the primary concern for everybody responding to this incident.”
The heat also is likely to continue drawing tourists to the water. Tourist Krisilyn Patton says people should come as long as the beaches are open.
“People need to know that, for right now and the further east you go, it’s still open and it’s still beautiful. They need to come on down because it may not stay like this for long,” said Patton.
Just how long the threat from oil will remain is the big question for Pensacola and the entire Gulf region.