PERDIDO KEY — On one of the westernmost patches of Florida earth, the people of this beach community plucked litter from impossibly white sand -- lipstick-stained cigarette butts, bottle caps, straws, plastic cups -- in a frantic effort to protect the shoreline from an oil spill gushing in the Gulf of Mexico that is likely to arrive in days.
By lunchtime on this gray Sunday, hundreds of men, women and children were canvassing the 10-mile-long key in a delicate dance to remove debris that could become oil-coated contaminants, all without damaging wildlife nests, grassy beds and sand dunes.
Along the Florida Panhandle, towns whose livelihood, history and identity are inextricably linked to the beaches and bays are bracing for what promises to be an economic and environmental disaster caused by an April 20 oil rig explosion.
Perdido Key is likely to be the first place in Florida touched by the spill, but all across the region people believe that after this week, life will change. For now, they wait.
"It's like waiting for a hurricane, the same kind of anxiety," said Charlene Schultheis, who grew up in these parts and helped clean up the beach behind the Flora-Bama Lounge. "But once a hurricane blows through, you get up and clean up and rebuild. With this spill, you don't know how long it will last. Every day could bring more and more."
Red flags on the Panama City beaches instructed people to stay out of the water. Robert Cozine and his fellow surfing buddies ignored the warnings.
The choppy surf on Sunday didn't make for ideal surfing conditions, but Cozine said he wanted to be on his board while he still had the chance.
"I feel like this oil -- it's like the comet that's heading to Earth," Cozine said. "There's nothing you can do about it except wait to die and enjoy life while you can."
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