Coast Guard Ready to Fight Oil Spill Near Pensacola

PENSACOLA (2010-5-3) -

The oil spill in the Gulf continues to get closer to Florida panhandle beaches, the Coast Guard is using the Pensacola Naval Air Station as a staging base for its response.

On Sunday, bright booms sat on deck, ready to be ferried out into the Gulf and a couple hundred workers in hard hats and safety vests awaited their marching orders.

Public affairs officer Harry White says the preparations are ramped up.

“What I have seen is hundreds of thousands of feet of boom. We have spill recovery units, skimmers, frack tanks, lots of boats loaded with boom. Those are the kinds of materials and supplied we have seen here at NAS Pensacola,”White said.

"We're still in the ramp up," said 35-year-old Joshua Mitchell Sr., a supervisor at the staging area. "We're still getting everything organized, that way if the oil does get here, we're ready to hit it and go."

The forecast keeps changing for when and if oil will hit Florida's beaches, but right now, Pensacola is most at risk.

As the massive spill spread through the Gulf of Mexico, some experts feared currents could pull it down around the Florida Keys and up the East Coast. If that happens, the scope of the disaster could grow exponentially, affecting not only the Gulf states but portions of the Eastern Seaboard and all of southeast Florida where the Gulf Stream runs fairly close to shore.

"This may have potentially disastrous effects especially on the beaches and the reefs," said Hans Graber, executive director of the University of Miami's Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing. "With weather conditions deteriorating that makes it very difficult to contain."

Already, the state's fishing industry was beginning to feel the spill's effect. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Sunday shut down commercial and recreational fishing from Louisiana to parts of the Florida Panhandle, saying the closure would last for at least 10 days.

From the white sands of the Florida Panhandle, where throngs of students descend annually for spring break, to the idyllic coastlines of the South Florida, home to the only living coral barrier reef in North America, this is a state known for its prized shores. As such, the looming oil was of particular concern to coastal businesses whose profits depend on the waters.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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