Winds this week will largely determine what happens along the coasts of Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, as the worst oil spill in U.S. history nears the two-month mark. Forecasters have been most concerned about the Mississippi/Alabama barrier islands and the Florida Panhandle.
Thousands of vacationers, meanwhile, are changing plans, either hoping to catch beach time before the spill washes in, booking at the last minute or heading elsewhere. The most popular alternative destinations seem to be Myrtle Beach, S.C., Cape Cod, Mass., and Costa Rica.
To hold onto potential visitors, many Gulf hotels and rental condos are offering refunds if beaches close after visitors arrive or charging no penalties for last-minute cancellations, according to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism agency. In addition, the Visit Florida Website has added online features with links to beach Webcams, daily videos and Twitter feeds to keep tourists up-to-date on developments. Here’s a state-by-state look:
Florida – All beaches remain open for now, although tourism officials are expecting more oil to reach shore sometime Monday, June 21. Scattered tar balls have been found from the Alabama-Florida line east to Walton County. A health advisory is in effect for beaches stretching from the state line to the entrance of Johnson Beach on Perdido Key, near Pensacola, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Parts of the beach at Perdido Key had up to 30 percent coverage with tar balls and patties. Swimming or fishing there is not advised. Little new impact has been seen on Pensacola Beach itself, which remains open for swimming and fishing.
Alabama – Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are experiencing heavy oiling, tourism officials say, but they have altered their warnings to the public. Gulf Shores beaches are flying yellow flags, which ask swimmers to proceed with caution. Orange Beach has gone from double red flags (meaning the waters are closed to the public) to a single red flag, which suggests but doesn’t demand that people stay out of the water. Sunbathing and walking are still OK. The Alabama Department of Public Health has issued an advisory against swimming in waters off Fort Morgan, or in bay waters close to Bayou St. John, Terry Cove, Cotton Bayou or Old River.
Louisiana – Grand Isle has closed its public beach, according to tourism officials, with the primary area of concern being everything east of the mouth of the Mississippi River. Advisories have been issued at beaches and state parks where water quality testing has indicated a health hazard. These include Constance Beach, Cypremort State Park, Fontainebleau State Park, Gulf Breeze Beach, Holly Beach, Little Florida Beach, Long Beach, Martin, Rutherford, and South Beach. Forecasters worry most about the Chandeleur Islands and Breton Sound.
Mississippi – Oil has affected some of the barrier islands near Alabama (where patches of gooey tar have washed ashore), but the state’s manmade beaches remain largely untouched except for tar balls. About 140 dead turtles have been found since the spill, and hotel and motel reservations on the Gulf Coast are down 50 percent.
Texas – So far the state’s 624 miles of coastline have escaped the spill, but officials are carefully watching winds and weather, specifically as it relates to tourism on South Padre Island, in Port Aransas, Galveston and Corpus Christi.
Also, oyster beds along the Gulf Coast have been shut down and shrimp boats have been told to stop harvesting, but restaurateurs still have pre-spill supplies. What is lacking are customers, they say, who think the spill has already hit wholesalers.
Scientists estimate that anywhere from 40 million to 109 million gallons of oil have gushed into the Gulf since the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and setting the spill in motion.