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The Associated Press May 3, 2010, 5:43PM ET

Fla. tourism businesses brace as oil slick nears

Florida tourism leaders and workers from Pensacola to Key West grew increasingly angry and worried Monday as an oil slick created by a blown out drilling rig off Louisiana moved closer to the state's shores and threatened their livelihoods.

Gov. Charlie Crist expanded a state of emergency Monday to include 19 counties from Escambia in the Panhandle to Sarasota in southwest Florida. The massive spill caused by the explosion of a BP PLC oil rig two weeks ago has been slowly moving toward Florida and oil might start washing ashore in the Panhandle by Tuesday and could reach the Keys by the weekend.

"We have an ecological and environmental disaster in the making," U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said at a tourism meeting Monday in Orlando. "This could not only be an economic disaster for Florida and our $65 billion tourism industry, which depends on pristine beaches but also an environmental disaster because of our bays and estuaries that spawn so much marine life. People in the Panhandle are panicked. They're about to start their tourism season and they're facing the oil spill."

At a meeting in Navarre, about 100 Florida Panhandle residents and business owners peppered BP PLC and local officials with concerns and questions, demanding to know how the spill would affect their homes, health and future and what the company and government were doing to stop the spill's spread.

"Would it be possible to just go out there and bomb the hell out of it?" said Kenny Wilder, 67, of Navarre, just east of Pensacola. A man behind him yelled, "Napalm it."

"I don't want to look like Detroit, all boarded up here," said 46-year-old Montana Kurtz-Minck, who fears her businesses -- a facial spa and a surf school -- could fail because of the spill. She asked a BP representative who would pay her mortgage when she was unemployed, and was directed to a BP hot line. Another attendee said the line has been constantly jammed.

"We've been trying to call, call, call and the lines are always busy," Ira Mae Bruce said. Another said a hot line operator took a message last week but the company hasn't called him back.

The spill began April 20 when a drilling rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 workers. It has been spewing up to 200,000 gallons of oil per day into the Gulf with little to no relief expected for at least another week. The spill now covers thousands of square miles and is getting close to the Loop Current, which speeds south through the Gulf and into the Florida Keys. It then hits the Gulf Stream, which could then drive the oil north along Florida's Atlantic Coast.

Nick Shay, a physical oceanographer at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, suspects that oil is already getting into the periphery of the Loop Current and will likely end up in the Keys "relatively quickly."

"Certainly within a week," Shay said. "It will impact coral reefs and fisheries and the ecosystem of the entire Florida Keys."

And that has some Keys residents starting to worry.

"I am not going to lie and say we haven't been discussing it amongst ourselves. But it doesn't seem like there is a whole lot we can do about it here. We are so utterly helpless," said Luke Abbey, an employee at Subtropic Dive Center in Key West. "Our money is made on the water. So, if there is an oil slick on the water, there is no diving."

He said there are three sports in Key West: "Drinking, fishing and diving. In that order. The only thing that is not going to be affected is drinking."

But other Keys business leaders were taking a wait-and-see attitude Monday. The island chain has avoided economic disaster when hurricanes turned away at the last minute and they hope the oil slick will do the same. If it does come, they hope the economic damage will be minimal.

"There are so many things to do here, and it's a destination usually planned in advance. I don't think people would be making changes," said Cindy Derocher, general manager of the Gardens Hotel in Key West.

David Yates, the CEO of Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which specializes in rehabilitating injured marine wildlife, said his facility and others would treat any dolphins, manatees, turtles and other sea life injured by the spill. Officials believe the animals could suffer respiratory problems and damage to soft tissue like their eyes and mouths.

The state's fishing industry has already been damaged -- the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Sunday shut down commercial and recreational fishing from Louisiana to parts of the Florida Panhandle, saying the closure would last for at least 10 days. The ban could be expanded as the spill spreads.

Crist says officials don't yet have an estimate of what it's going to cost to clean up the state's beaches and waters if the spill reaches the state.

Crist, though, said Monday that Florida would send the bill to the "responsible party" -- BP PLC.

Crist said he shared the frustration of local officials who are worried about not having enough floating booms to protect their beaches. The booms are strung together in the water as a barrier to keep the oil offshore.

Florida would "have to do the best with what we have," Crist said.

Back in the Panhandle, Dana Powell, the manager of the Paradise Inn in Pensacola Beach, said Monday that while tourists are starting to cancel, she thinks her hotel will do OK for now because oil cleanup workers will need rooms and will replace some of the lost income.

The cleanup workers "won't be having as much fun, but they might be buying more liquor at the bar because they'll be so depressed," she said.


Associated Press writers Suzette Laboy in Miami, Mitch Stacy in St. Petersburg and Mike Schneider in Orlando contributed to this report.

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