PENSACOLA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - “World’s Whitest Beaches.” So reads the sign, topped with a leaping Marlin, that greets motorists along U.S. Highway 98 as they drive into Pensacola Beach in northwest Florida.
But local business owners in this tourist mecca fear the promise may soon turn as black as the spreading tide of oil already staining the blue Gulf of Mexico.
BP Plc officials and emergency responders from five states are grappling with a huge oil spill from a ruptured BP-owned Gulf well threatening fishing and tourism centers from Louisiana to Florida.
In Pensacola, the mood is increasingly pensive, skeptical and angry.
Cancellations are flowing into hotels, motels and time shares. And charter boat captains are worried about their livelihoods since they normally look to summer for sun-seeking tourists after the busy spring break season.
Long touted for its blinding “white sugar” sand, the economy of Pensacola and the surrounding Panhandle region is based almost solely on the quality of its beaches and the turquoise blue water that ebbs and flows onto its shores.
“I make my living off the water,” said John Rivers, a charter boat captain from Gulf Breeze. “If there are no fish or you can’t eat them, I’m out of business.”
Officials for BP have spent the last few days meeting with community groups trying to assure them the company will make good on promises to reimburse them for any lost income.
“As a former Floridian, I know how the beaches are part of your lives, your community and your businesses,” BP spokesperson Liz Castro told a group of more than 400 people who crammed into a Pensacola Beach church to hear from government and company officials on Monday.
“BP is responsible for this and we will be here to see this through,” Castro said.
But business owners are skeptical about the company’s pledge to offer quick claim payments without requiring owners to sign waivers on future damage.
While big-pocket chains can withstand a summer without tourists, small operators who make up a larger portion of the business community do not have that luxury.
Making matters worse, some local businesses were just starting to recover from past hurricanes — including Ivan in 2004 — when the latest summer cancellations began coming in as the Gulf oil slick spread.
“How do I feed my children?” asked Victor Wright, owner of the Gulf Breeze Bait and Tackle Shop, who said he can’t wait months to get repaid.
Although there is still no oil in sight off Pensacola, he said his business was already losing customers fast.
Rivers, owner of Mega Bites Inshore Charter, said most of his bookings for June had already been canceled.
“This could easily cost me all the rest of my 2010 business,” he said. “If the oil damages the (fish) nurseries, 2011 won’t be any better. I’m already looking for work.”
Adding to the frustration is the nature of the pending disaster. Unlike hurricanes, in which state and local governments coordinate the response, BP is fully in charge of the oil pollution prevention operation.
That is uncharted territory for officials like Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan, who is used to being in charge.
“Anybody else feel helpless?” Morgan asked the crowd assembled at the Pensacola Beach Community Church.
“We are strictly in a support mode now. As a law enforcement officer, that is a frustrating place to be.”
Lee Kent, general manager of United Rentals, a heavy equipment company, feels the frustration too.
He is waiting to help push sand, or tackle other kinds of oil spill containment work.
But he said he had been stymied by the red tape and his clients’ inability to get the permits needed to protect their own property. Everything is being run through the U.S. Coast Guard, which is in turn coordinating with BP, Kent said.
Other area businesses are trying to make something positive out of the situation, but turning this into a win for the community is hard even for the best community booster.
“We need to tell people that if they want to help us, they need to come and stay with us,” said Fred Simmons, who owns a number of Pensacola Beach businesses, including the Paradise Inn motel.
Editing by Tom Brown and Todd Eastham