Florida Gulf Coast prepares for the worst

DESTIN, Fla. -- Carl Oskins is the last guy tourists on Florida's Panhandle beaches wanted to see.

Oskins has pulled floating oil containment booms into seas from Alaska's North Slope to the Azores off Africa. He is a crew chief for New Mexico's H2o OSRO, and when he showed up Friday in Destin, something bad was on the horizon.

Oskins and a crew of 16 stacked 36,000 linear feet of yellow oil booms on the white crystal sands of the inlet between Destin and Gulf Shores National Seashore. The booms trap oil floating on top of the water to keep it from spreading.

They began pulling lengths of it into sensitive spots along the inlet, laying out pre-emptive battle lines to try to keep escaped oil from BP's leaking Deepwater Horizon well from making its way into Choctawhatchee Bay and its bayous. The crew will not spread booms along the Florida Panhandle's famous white beaches.

Watching the men work  broke the hearts of Kathleen Shaughnessy and her five Mississippi gal pals who are wrapping up their 17th annual wives' week out.

"We felt like we were in heaven," said Shaughnessy, lying on the spit of sand known as Norriego Point at the inlet.

The plume of offshore oil has not reached Destin yet, but as globs of oil called tar balls hit nearby Pensacola's shores on Friday, the women grew pensive.

While Oskins' crew pulled yellow booms through the water nearby, Belinda Mallory said, "We've not even gotten over Katrina yet."

Shaughnessy said they weathered the massive hurricane in their hard-hit hometown of Biloxi, "and we all knew it was going to be five to 10 years for the recovery, but we didn't need this."

Dorinda Fayard added, "This is going to be worse than Katrina."

After a hurricane, houses can be rebuilt, she said. "But you can't replace the environment, and that is what is going to be taken away."

Pensacola's tar balls were cleaned up by some of the 500 workers BP is paying to help Florida. But Saturday morning  new marble- and golf ball-sized tar balls were beginning to wash up, according to news reports.

Zach Hopkins of Dalton stretched out on Destin's oceanfront early Saturday. He had called the resort before coming to make sure the beaches were still open.

Resorts desperate to keep tourists on board are giving discounts. His $2,000 weekly rate for a beachfront condo was dropped to $1,200, he said.

"The crowd is down from what I'm used to," said Hopkins, whose parents first brought him when he was a teenager. Now he has his own kids, 17 and 12, in tow. "With restaurants, you can get right in. I guess that is a good thing for me."

Dino Villani, public safety director for Okaloosa County, which includes Destin and Fort Walton Beach, said officials there were preparing to see tar balls Saturday or Sunday. And he expected a quick response from his workers to help keep tourists, the economic lifeblood of the region, happy.

"We are being proactive and are going to do what we need to do to get people back in the water," he said.

The spill already is having an effect, even though the beaches are as of yet untouched by the pollution.

Bob Robicheaux,  chairman of the Department of Marketing, Industrial Distribution and Economics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Business, said he has talked to contacts who tell him cancellation rates are near 60 percent.

"People are canceling their reservations already, and there is no damage done," he said.

He estimated more than two weeks ago that the oil spill will cost the Gulf Coast $700 million in lost income.

"I think it is going to be worse than what I expected earlier," he said. "And if they don't get their revenue in those summer months they will lose money on the year."