Gulf oil spill targets Florida beaches as it nears loop current

New forecasts suggest that the loop current could carry the Gulf oil spill to Florida beaches within the next eight to 10 days. After that, it could reach the Atlantic Ocean.

By MARK GUARINO | Christian Science Monitor Staff Writer
posted May 18, 2010 at 8:08 pm EDT

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill may soon move south where it is expected to impact the Florida coast as soon as eight to 10 days.

Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) told reporters Tuesday that the so-called loop current, a fast-moving underwater current from the Caribbean has the potential to pick up oil from the south end of the slick and rotate it into the direction of the western coast of Florida, where it will be picked up by the Gulf Stream and taken in the direction of the Atlantic Ocean.

Sensors in the water will help gauge the water’s temperature and direction, officials say. Persistent onshore winds and underwater temperatures will be factors in determining when or if the oil will hit Florida shorelines.

“This is a time for awareness and preparation but not overreaction,” said Jane Lubchenco, NOAA undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere.

Tar balls in the Keys

Oil in the form of tar balls is already washing ashore in the Florida Keys. Ms. Lubchenco said they are on their way to a Coast Guard laboratory in Connecticut where testing will determine if they came from the oil spill that started with a blowout on the Deepwater Horizon April 20.

But Lubchenco did add: “It is safe to say the tar balls … are an example of what might happen should oil become entrained in the loop current. That is a scenario we are anticipating and preparing for.”

The oil expected to appear on Florida beaches will likely be “weathered” – diluted by as much as 40 percent through its exposure to the water and sun. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s office sent a press release with photos to show residents what forms the oil might take on the shore. He asked that any sightings be reported immediately to an emergency command center.

“Floridians and visitors can play an active role in minimizing any potential threats to Florida’s beautiful beaches and coastline by reporting the impact of oil … it is important that we be prepared and informed about what to look for,” Governor Crist said in the statement released late Tuesday afternoon.

Last week, Crist issued an order to accelerate staging areas for 19 coastal counties. On Monday, he organized a council of attorneys to explore possible legal or regulatory actions should the oil cause havoc on the state coast.

“Since the first day [of the spill] we were anticipating it was coming a lot sooner than it did,” says spokeswoman Jessi Freud. “It’s eight to 10 days away, but we’ve already acted like it’s coming the whole time.”

On Tuesday, NOAA expanded the ban on commercial fishing in the Gulf. To date, the ban affects 19 percent of federal waters in the region. The US Food and Drug Administration is starting to test seafood from both inside and outside the closed areas to monitor possible toxicity.

Florida beaches safe? Check the webcam.

Florida tourism officials shifted summer campaigns immediately upon learning the news. Tourism is the state’s largest industry and is responsible for generating more than $60 billion dollars annually, says Kathy Torian, corporate communications manager for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing organization.

Ms. Torian said the agency set up a special website where visitors can monitor the beaches in real time and view uploaded photos by recent visitors that show that coastal recreation is alive and well.

A $500,000 summer advertising campaign is being retooled to promote the website and emphasize Florida is “not covered in oil,” Torian says. Crist also released $2 million in emergency funds to create new broadcast and online spots to keep the campaign running. On Tuesday, BP awarded the state a $25 million grant for additional state tourism efforts.

Even with increased financial muscle, it is difficult to sway visitors when so much remains uncertain. Torian says the official state position to report on how the coasts are faring 72 hours into the future. “That’s as much information anyone is willing to say with certainty,” she says.

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