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Gulf oil spill: Florida Panhandle starts preparing

May 9, 2010 |  7:35 am

As Saturday boaters and anglers traversed St. Andrews Bay in Panama City, Fla., BP contractors being supervised by the Coast Guard worked to place thousands of feet of booms in case the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill reached the Florida shores.

From Pensacola to St. Petersburg, the same process has been taking place, beginning last weekend, and is expected to continue at least through this week, booming bays and environmentally sensitive areas. The oil is currently about 90 miles south of Pensacola and more than 90 miles west of Panama City, said U.S. Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Stan LeCain.

The Coast Guard, which has been using the Panama City Marina as one of several staging areas along the Florida coast, pn Saturday oversaw placement of 5,000 feet of yellow and orange booms across the bay’s outlet leading to the Gulf of Mexico. Booms used here were coming from as far as Singapore and China, LeCain said.

“It’s all preventive measures,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer Renee Aiello, on a Coast Guard boat in Grand Lagoon, which sits between the bay and the gulf. “Everything being done here is preventive.”

Along the white, sandy shore of the lagoon, yellow booms floated on the surface, more than a foot of skirt hanging under the surface ready to catch oil if it were to float this way. In the distance, multistory hotels and condos dotted the edges of the bay.

Much of the region’s economy is dependent on these waters -- for the tourism they bring, the boat and Jet Ski rentals, the seafood and the oceanfront restaurants.

Saturday, the contractors were laying enough booms to span the outlet. The booms would then be pulled back and kept to one side of the lagoon, in waiting.

“Until we get the word, we’re not closing it off yet,” LeCain said. “It’s not practical.”

Closing off the bay would disrupt the region’s tourism and impede the boaters who skim across the water to fish and sunbathe. LeCain said putting out the booms now also could increase the chance they would be damaged.

After Panama City, the operation will move east, he said. If the oil nears, they hope to have two to three days' notice before the booms need to be strung out.

But it will take until the end of the week for all the booms to be in place; forecasts of the oil plume's movement don't extend that far.

“We’re still in the area of uncertainty,” said Mark Bowen, director of Bay County emergency operations. “In terms of outlook, we’re looking at Tuesday, that’s where the forecast ends.”

-- Raja Abdulrahim, reporting from Panama City, Fla.