Residents are preparing for the worst but still hoping the "Category 5 oil spill" stays far away from Anna Maria Island.
Watching the spread of the Deepwater Horizon oil slick is like a hurricane watch for Anna Maria Island residents - the waiting is the hardest part.
With no shutters to put up, no ice to stockpile and no survival kits to assemble, there is very little to do but watch, wait - and go to the beach.
Beachgoers are not taking crystal clear water and clean beaches for granted now that they’re threatened by oil.
Cortez resident Dana Wakelam and several of her friends went to the beach last week to beat the oil. Beach walkers are making comments in passing to strangers about enjoying the beach while it’s free from oil. In the checkout line, shoppers discuss how the spill may keep lawmakers from proposing oil rigs in the Gulf.
“It’s totally unacceptable considering the potential damage,” said Rusty Chinnis, a local angler who opposes oil rigs. “It’s horrible. Horrible.”
Already, state Reps. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, and Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, have proposed a special legislative session to amend the state constitution to prohibit oil and gas drilling in state waters, supported by state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, whose website offers a petition to support the amendment.
The governor declared a statewide state of emergency, and Sarasota County soon followed, but Manatee County has not followed suit, as no signs of oil have been reported approaching the county.
“We’re not ready to do that yet,” Commissioner John Chappie said.
The benefits of declaring a state of emergency include expedited decision making without having to go through normal chains of command and access to emergency funding, said Ed McCrane, emergency management chief for Sarasota County.
“Also, it gives everybody in government a sense of urgency, and we can pull people away from their normal duties,” he added.
The urgency is palpable in the tourism industry.
Local tourism officials are celebrating Tourism Week this week, with one even jumping out of a plane onto Coquina Beach to let people know the beaches are unaffected.
An oil spill is like a Category 5 hurricane to the tourist industry, causing cancellations, slow bookings and damage to the beach.
Tourism-related businesses like Island Real Estate are compiling records of past spring business to compare with 2010’s season in case oil reaches the beaches and they make compensation claims against BP.
The Anna Maria Chamber of Commerce is fielding phone calls from people demanding to know whether the oil will arrive during their vacations.
Wildlife groups also are in high gear, with the spill coming at the start of sea turtle and bird nesting season. Oil is often lethal to dolphins, manatees and sea turtles, which must surface through the oil to breathe air. It also kills fish and birds.
Well-meaning volunteers getting a head start on the oil by cleaning up beaches disturbed bird nesting areas, prompting state agencies to issue beach cleaning guidelines.
Commercial fishermen and recreational fishing guides are watching closely as the spill causes fishery closures to the north. They fear increased regulations even if the oil does not reach the coastline, but for now, seafood is available and safe locally.
Cortez commercial fishermen are applying to BP to help lay booms if the oil approaches west central Florida coastlines.
Official estimates are that 5,000 barrels – about a tanker’s worth of oil – are being discharged into the Gulf each day. A dome built to cap the gusher may or may not work, and is only a temporary fix until a relief well is completed in the next three months. Projections of oil arriving on Florida’s coastline have been consistent since last month – no impact “in the next 72 hours.” The U.S. Coast Guard predicted the liquid oil would turn into sticky tar balls and just such golfball-sized clumps began washing up on Alabama beaches over the weekend.
At press time, the oil remained north of the loop current that could sweep oil safely past Anna Maria Island, but deliver it to the Keys, then into the Gulf Stream and up the Atlantic Coast.
Morgan Stanley analysts are estimating that cleanup costs will exceed those of the Exxon Valdez in 1989, with potentially larger fines.