Florida’s Nightmare

“We were having our best year ever. People were booked back to back to back. The instructors were starting to complain that they couldn’t get a day off…then the oil hit.” For Peggy Van Sleen of Emerald Coast Yachts (ECY) in Pensacola, Florida, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill has devastated more than just the Gulf of Mexico; it’s crippled her charter company as well.

The worst oil spill in U.S. history began on April 20 when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank off the coast of Louisiana. Oil has been pouring relentlessly into the Gulf since then, and with each passing week, the situation has worsened for the fishing, boating and tourism industries, to say nothing of the effects on the area’s wildlife and ecosystem.

In the first weeks of June, as oil neared the coast of northwest Florida, ECY began canceling charters and moving boats into Little Sabine Harbor, near Pensacola. By mid-June, the situation looked dire, and the State of Florida announced it would be placing booms along the state’s northwestern shoreline. “We knew that if we didn’t pull the boats out then and the oil came, they’d be sitting ducks,” Van Sleen says.

ECY’s boats were some of the first to arrive at the shipyard. “A lot of people thought we were being overly conservative. But since then, there have been boats arriving every single day,” Van Sleen says. In fact, many insurance companies are paying their clients up to $1,000 a boat to haul out, just to get their assets out of the dangerous waters.

As the oil kept gushing into the Gulf, ECY was forced to cancel the remainder of its July charters. The company has a full refund policy and also offers the possibility of rebooking when the oil is no longer a problem.

Farther down the Florida coast in Fort Myers, charter companies were beginning to feel the effects of the spill even though oil had not hit their shores. “We’re not affected physically by the oil, but everybody thinks we are, so that’s a tough battle to fight,” explains Barb Hansen of Southwest Florida Yachts. “At first, our phones just got real quiet, then by mid-May, everyone was cancelling.”

At press time, NOAA was reporting that the oil had not yet reached the Loop Current, which could transport it to Fort Myers, Southwest Florida and the Florida Keys before dispersing it around Florida and up the Eastern Seaboard. Still, the proximity of the spill has charter guests and tourists opting to spend their vacations elsewhere.

In an effort to combat the trend, the federal government recently awarded Florida $25 million in marketing funds to boost tourism, but Hansen knows it will take more than that to rebuild confidence. Her company, along with local tourist boards, is sending several e-blasts encouraging tourists to return to Florida.

“I can honestly say we’ve never dealt with something of this magnitude,” says Hansen. “This is worse than 9/11, worse than any hurricane, worse than the recession. With hurricanes, it comes and goes, but with the oil spill, you can’t deal with something you can’t see.”

Both ECY and Southwest Florida Yachts hope BP will live up to its promises and plug the gaping spill. Even after that happens, though, it will take months for professional skimmers and volunteer beach cleaners to get Florida back to what it was. Traveling around Florida’s Gulf Coast, Van Sheen describes the scene on the beaches as a “surreal juxtaposition” between kids making sandcastles and people in hazmat suites cleaning up the oil.

Van Sheen was optimistic that once the wellhead was plugged, the recovery would be relatively painless. “The one thing that people in this area know how to do is rebuild. We’ll get through it. But what every American can do for us is to come back and vacation here. It’s nice to have fundraisers and volunteers cleaning up, but planning a vacation to Florida will really help us pull our boot straps up.”

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