Tired of waiting for BP, Florida towns plan to fight oil alone

Miami HeraldJune 15, 2010 

DESTIN, Fla. — In Florida's Okaloosa County, where the biggest threat used to be the occasional hurricane warning, county commissioners declared themselves ready to go to jail to ensure their pristine beaches and bays are protected.

Neighboring Walton County gave beach workers plastic buckets and shovels to scoop up tar balls along the white sand beaches, because it was taking BP clean-up crews too long to get there.

And Santa Rosa County sent a county hall staffer to the Unified Command center in Mobile, Ala., where BP and federal agencies are coordinating the clean-up, to tap on shoulders and get answers that county officials complained were taking too long to arrive via phone or e-mail.

"There are peace-time rules and there are war-time rules,'' said Destin City Councilman Jim Wood, as he watched yellow boom being laid across the emerald green and light blue waters of Norriego Point Beach. "Right now we're at war to protect our beaches.''

Along the seaside villages and towns of the Florida Panhandle, serenity has given way to stress ever since tarballs from the Deepwater Horizon spill started to speckle area beaches, and globs of oil began to seep into Pensacola's waterways.

Now communities off the beaten path find themselves taking matters into their own hands — coordinating booming plans, haggling with state and federal officials to pay more attention, even tapping into county reserves to pay for workers and equipment until BP reimburses them.

"It's been a bit stressful, but we're hoping for the best,'' said Mike Gurspand, spokesman for the Walton County Sheriff's Department, which is overseeing the county's oil-spill response.

Walton County — in the center of the Panhandle about halfway between Pensacola and Tallahassee and home to 26 miles of beaches and 50,000 residents — has had to dip into emergency funds intended for hurricane relief to cover costs.

The county went back and forth with state and federal environmental officials for more than a month to get approval for a county-financed $500,000 plan to protect its coastal dune lakes — a rare ecosystem where the fresh-water lakes and the salt water of the Gulf meet.

With the aid of bulldozers, workers have been able to build sand berms along the county's 15 lakes. The lakes are the pride of the county, because they are exclusive to the area. Similar ecosystems can be found in far off locales in Madagascar and Australia, but nowhere else in Florida, according to a study by the Florida National Areas Inventory.

Anger reached a boiling point Monday in Okaloosa County, when nearly 100 locals packed into Destin City hall for an emergency meeting between the city council and county commission.

Frustrated by the lack of response from state and federal agencies, the county commission voted to give its emergency-management staff full authority to protect the county's waterways by "whatever means necessary'' — even if that means going over the heads of the Coast Guard and BP, which must sign off on protection plans.

"If it means going to jail, then as elected leaders it's a risk we have to take,'' said Okaloosa County Chairman Wayne Harris. "Now is not the time to be passive.''

The stress of mounting coastal protection efforts are shared along the more rural counties of the Panhandle.

"We're a pretty lean operation to begin with,'' said Santa Rosa County Commissioner Gordon Goodinû. "It's definitely taking a toll on our staff, who have been out there seven days a week, working 14-hour days, and trying to keep up with the steep learning curve. If there's a hurricane we know how to deal with that. But how do you deal with something of this magnitude?''

Upset by the lack of response from Unified Command, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Escambia counties deployed a full-time delegate to represent their interests and seek answers from BP and federal officials at the command post in Mobile.

"Communication has been a total abomination. Answers are just not coming quick enough,'' said Dino Villani, public safety director for Okaloosa County.

Yet despite the warring local government and BP factions, residents living along the scenic stretches of the Panhandle's beachside highways — like Walton County's Route 30-A — say they are trying to hold on to the optimism that comes with living in a beach town.

"Our biggest worries have been whether you're going to have grouper or trout for dinner,'' joked Jim Theane, a fisherman better known as "Pompano Jim'' by the locals of the sleepy coastal town of Grayton Beach, in Walton County.

For fisherman like Theane, the Gulf's emerald waters are not only the lifeline that pump tourist dollars into the area but also part of their way of life. The pristine sea and sand are the backdrop for nighttime bonfires and community picnics.

"We're not much for worrying out here, and we'd like to keep it that way,'' Theane said.

Inside the Grayton General Store, where glass jars of "Authentic Walton County Honey'' sell for $9.99 and Sweet Home Alabama plays in the background, locals and tourists purchase fishing bait, Lotto tickets and ice cream.

Mention of tar balls and oil spills elicit smirks — it's the type of thing the locals try not to dwell upon too much. Boats are just that, boats — not "vessels of opportunity,'' as BP and the Coast Guard call those helping with the cleanup — and seashells, not tar balls, are what children grab and dump into plastic sand buckets.

"We prefer to stay optimistic and keep those worries in the back of our head,'' said Andrew Twitty, the store's cashier.

Grayton Beach, where the unofficial town motto is "Nice Dogs. Strange People,'' is one of the oldest seaside communities in Florida. Founded in 1890, the unincorporated town in southern Walton County has only 185 homes — most of those beach cottages and quaint bed-and-breakfast nooks.

Residents still boast of being named the country's best beach in 1994 by Coastal Living magazine.

Just east of Grayton along 30-A lie the master-planned towns of WaterColor, Seagrove and Seaside — the latter so picturesque, with its pastel-colored beach homes, that Hollywood chose it to film The Truman Show, a Jim Carrey movie about a reality-show character trying to escape an all-too-perfect world.

"I'm trying not to be all doom-and-gloom,'' said Seagrove artist Debbie Weant-Lane, as she painted a picture of a palm tree. "If it comes we'll deal with it. . . . Too many people care about this area to not try and help in their own way.''

Weant-Lane, who has lived and sold her paintings and jewelry in both Grayton and Seagrove for six years, hopes the scenic beach views and jewel-tone colors of the ocean that inspire her work are not jeopardized by the brown and black oil slicks.

"Call me crazy, but I don't think it's going to hit us that hard,'' she said as she painted outside her store, 30-A Art and Junk. In an area where the tried-and-true locals are bound by their love of the beach, Weant-Lane hopes they will be able to weather seeing their beaches tainted by the streams of oil snaking their way closer.

"Part of being southern is the art of overcoming,'' Weant-Lane said. "There will always be epic tragedies, and there will always be opportunities to over come 'em.''

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