FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. -- Wary tourists, watchful cleanup crews and worried locals mixed on Florida's Panhandle beaches Sunday as tide-borne tar balls rolled onto one and then another stretch of white sand.
The poisonous brew spewing from the Deepwater Horizon blowout found its way to Pensacola Beach on Friday; by Sunday, the sugar beaches of Fort Walton Beach, Destin, Seaside, Grayton and Panama City were mostly untouched but seemed lined up like dominos as the oil drifted toward them.
Georgians who vacationed here as children and now bring their kids to enjoy the sun and water were like family members gathered for news in a hospital waiting room: hoping for the best but fearing the inevitable.
"I am just so sad," said Patricia Partin of Woodstock while playing in Fort Walton Beach's as-yet untainted waters with her children Everest, 4, and Sebestian, 2. "We come here because of the perfect white sand and the clear water. I feel like I won't be able to come back again."
The plumes of oil are floating offshore as far east as Destin. If oil starts hitting the shore in quantity, Partin said she fears for the wildlife, the people who make their living from the sea, and the loss of a vacation spot that has attracted her family for 15 years. The pictures out of Louisiana of goo-covered pelicans and brown oil slicks floating through salt marshes have horrified her.
Tar balls have been moving west to east along the Gulf Coast. On Sunday one stretch of the Gulf Islands National Seashore east of Pensacola and toward Fort Walton Beach was covered so thickly in long stretches of tar balls that one could not walk without stepping on them. The dime- to dinner-plate-sized gobs of oil mix with sand into a gritty, brown cookie-dough consistency that are treated as toxic waste when cleaned up.
Sad as the disaster is for visitors, it is terrifying for locals.
Fred Simmons owns and operates Paradise Inn, Paradise Bar and Grill and Paradise Beach homes, a sales and rental agency with 140 properties in Pensacola Beach. Georgians make up the third-largest group of his business, behind those from Louisiana and Alabama, he said.
In the last three days, he has sent renters back $200,000 in down payments on rentals, Simmons said Sunday. Seven home sales, including one worth nearly $3 million, are on hold while potential buyers wait to see what is going to happen, he said.
"I am not sleeping real well. I could lose everything I have," Simmons said.
One upside is that beach-cleaning companies and staff members from Jimmy Buffet's new Margaritaville Hotel, set to open in a week in Pensacola Beach, are beginning to call and ask about renting space, he said.
But for many the frustration that has been simmering is beginning to bubble up in anger.
"I am very [angry]," said Jamie Spillers of Gulf Breeze, separated from Pensacola Beach by English Navy Cove.
"They just were not prepared for what is happening. People pay a lot of money to come here and play. But we live here. It's heartbreaking."
Paula Boyce of Loganville, in Pensacola for vacation, also expressed anger.
"I do feel like BP should have been doing more," Boyce said. "They should have done something more in the beginning to contain what the problem was. I feel kind of like they drug their feet on it."
Debra March of Blairsville, who grew up in Fort Walton Beach, talked of being glad to be here at this moment. She and her husband Lee March are afraid this is a last chance to see the crystal white beaches in their unsoiled beauty.
She said, "I wanted to come down here before anything bad happened."
Florida is trying hard to shield tourists like Partin and the Marches from the effects of the disaster. Workers swing into action quickly as the oil begins tainting Panhandle beaches. Busloads of men and women clad in yellow vests shuttle to trouble spots, where they walk up and down beaches, especially the most heavily visited ones, picking up the globs of oil and sand and hauling them off to a toxic waste facility.
Safety officials warn people to avoid contact with the oil and to wash off any accidentally contacted. Beaches spotted with oil in the morning are clean before noon, though every movement of tide or wind can bring more.
Two-man patrols from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, strapped with binoculars and Global Positioning System receivers, are looking for signs of birds and wildlife in distress. At the East Pass inlet between Fort Walton Beach and Destin, contractors preemptively strung yellow floating oil booms into emerald waters over the weekend to try to keep oil out of the bays and estuaries.
Scot Cauley from Macon, sporting a new tan with wife Becky as they stretched out on Fort Walton Beach, said he went on a charter fishing boat last Friday. He was talking to one of the boat's mates, who complained that the red snapper season has just opened, and officials were talking about closing it already over health concerns caused by the oil pollution. The Associated Press reported Sunday that nearly one-third of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico has been closed to fishing because of the disaster.
"I am in the construction business, and it is hurting," Cauley said. But at least he knows no one can tell him to stop building, he said.
Because the oil has not come ashore in large quantities yet at Fort Walton Beach, people are holding their emotions largely in check, Cauley believes.
"I'll bet there is going to be a lot of anger when it finally really hits," he said.
And he is already thinking about a personal response to the disaster.
"I know I would not stop at a BP station now," Cauley said.
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