For weeks, the residents of Florida’s northwest Panhandle had clung to a belief that the BP oil spill devastating the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama would bypass their famous ivory-white beaches. Until now, it had: despite an intermittent spitting of tar balls and the encroachment of a thin petro-sheen on the horizon, charitable winds and currents kept the real mess from washing ashore and threatening the Panhandle’s critical summer season — as well as Florida’s $60 billion tourism industry.
But the Sunshine State’s luck turned to muck this week when a mat of oil, weathered but still thicker than a sheen, began to blanket popular Pensacola Beach, prompting Florida’s first spill-related beach closures. Thursday evening, saucer-size crude patties and large oil puddles still pockmarked the sand up and down the shore. The area beaches reopened Friday morning after the filth was adequately cleared, but the psychological as well as physical damage was done. “As long as the wind was keeping it away offshore, there was a sense of optimism,” says Meg Peltier, head of the Gulf Breeze, Fla., Chamber of Commerce (and no relation to this story’s author). “But when it finally came ashore, it took the wind out of a lot of people’s sails.”