Updated 12 months ago
A year after the Deepwater Horizon well gushed 5 million barrels — more than 200 million gallons — of oil into the Gulf, the beaches of northwest Florida are again pristine, tourism business has returned, and BP has paid out more than $2 billion in
Florida damage claims. But the spill's aftermath still includes plenty of loose ends, starting with unsettled claims and extending to the lack of a full understanding of the spill's environmental impact, which may take years to assess. A year later, here's what you need to know.
A Year Ago
"I came out here on June 23rd. It was a Wednesday, and I couldn't find a speck of white sand for 60 feet inshore. We had daily cleanup for the next three months."
— Buck Lee, executive director of the
Santa Rosa Island Authority,
"Everything's gorgeous. Our business since February has been back to better than it's ever been. They come every morning to see if any tar balls came ashore; on the eight miles, they might occasionally get 5 pounds a mile.''
— Buck Lee
Gulf Coast Claims Facility Payments
The largest category of BP payments in Florida, at $2 billion, has been to individuals and businesses negatively impacted economically by the oil spill. The distribution of the payments reflects the fact that while 98% of the oil and residue that flowed onto Florida beaches from the Deepwater Horizon accident landed on the shores of Escambia County, the economic impact spilled all along the Gulf — most heavily on the counties of northwest Florida but extending all the way to Collier and Lee counties, where tourism-related businesses suffered from travelers' fears about possible contamination.
"Perception is the biggest challenge,'' says Craig Savage, director of media relations and communications for the Florida BP Gulf Coast Restoration Organization. BP has made payments through the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.
Pensacola Beach in March [Photo: Cheryl Casey/Shutterstock]
Payments to the State
BP payments to Florida
totaled $2.2 billion as of
July 21. Here's the breakdown:
» Government payments — $82 million
» Cleanup vessels — $73 million
» Tourism payments — $42 million
» Research payments — $10 million
» Natural resource damage assessment payments — $8 million
» Seafood testing/marketing — $5 million
» Behavioral health — $3 million
» Contributions — $300,000
Local Government Payments
Local governments received $31.9 million as of July 21 to cover spill-related response, removal or increased public service costs. Nearly the entire amount went to five counties in northwest Florida. No county in other parts of Florida collected more than $172,000, paid to Pinellas. Top amounts:
» Bay County — $9.0 million
» Walton County — $5.3 million
» Okaloosa County — $3.9 million
» Franklin County — $2.0 million
One Year Later: The Tourism Picture
The view from Oaseas Resorts' Shores of Panama condominiums [Photo: Pat Holcombe/Oaseas Resorts]
» Escambia County: Bed tax returns for October through May are up 12% from their best year ever, 2006.
» Santa Rosa County: May bed tax numbers are up 25% from a year ago, 12.3% from 2009.
» Okaloosa County: Numbers in April and May surpassed those same months in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
» Walton County: May's bed tax gain over a year ago was 15%.
» Bay County: Bed tax revenue in May was up 4.46% from a year earlier.
"The oil spill discussion is over. Everybody knows the beaches are clean,'' says Marty McDaniel, who runs Oaseas Resorts, a resort company managing 3,000 condominium units in Bay and Walton counties. His sales are up 45% from a year ago, and bookings for June and July put occupancy over 90%.
For McDaniel and many other businesses along the coast, however, here's the rub: "The additional traffic is not going to make up for losses of last year — we figured losses at $2 million. That's a big pill to swallow.'' Oaseas is still in negotiations with BP over a final resolution of its claim.
Environmental Impact — Jury's Still Out
FSU researchers are studying heavily oiled sediment collected from the Gulf last summer. [Photo: FSU Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science]
What we need to know is whether any damage inflicted at the base of the Gulf food chain will negatively impact marine life, especially the foods we harvest.
"A major focus is to be able to develop predictive sorts of models as to how to respond the next time it happens,'' says Ellington. "For example, was it the right thing to do to use dispersants?''
Florida universities and their research teams are seeking answers, pursuing dozens of projects, funded by millions of dollars in grants, much of the money provided by BP but also coming from other national research organizations. Among initiatives:
» The Florida Institute of Oceanography, a consortium of 20 research centers including 16 Florida universities, has funded 27 projects through a $10 million grant from BP.
» The National Science Foundation awarded 20 grants to Florida researchers for oil spill work.
» BP has created a multistate Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative and will invest $500 million over 10 years, of which $50 million is already allocated; it is soliciting proposals for research.
One Year Later: Perspectives on the Spill
Maria's Seafood, Pensacola
At Maria's Seafood shop, general manager Ray Boyer recalls the summer of 2010: "Confidence in seafood was at a low, tourism was at a major low and people in the rest of the country, due to CNN and other media reports, thought we all had oil dripping from our nose. We count on summer and expect a surplus, so we lost that last year — which was supposed to be our rebound year after the hurricanes. We were on our feet, we were ready and then the oil spill came along.'' This year? "I wouldn't say we're completely back, but we're working on it. The fish are healthy, restaurants are real busy and beaches are thriving.''
Multiple businesses, Seaside and Panama City Beach
Laurie Olshefski, who has 19 years in retailing, won a 2011 retailer of the year award from the Florida Retail Federation. She owns four coastal retail stores catering to tourists, two at Pier Park at Panama City Beach and two at Seaside; two are jewelry stores and two focus on healthy lifestyles. "It was a very tough year last year; people weren't buying. Our business was down an average of 30% for those summer months, the months that usually carried you through the year.'' She canceled orders from suppliers, hired fewer seasonal employees, and filed a claim with the BP claims office, which offered a partial settlement earlier this summer. "I don't have another year to fight claims,'' she says.
Chief marketing officer for Visit Florida
"Northwest Florida bore the brunt of the environmental impact, but all of Florida shared the economic impact. I'm concerned about misperception.''
Ecco Motors, Miramar Beach
Scott Lightsey owns Ecco Motors, a recreational vehicle rental and sales business. Just before the spill, he and a partner had invested more than a half-million dollars in 70 units of low-speed electrical street vehicles. By June 1 last year, a lack of business prompted them to liquidate a large portion of that inventory, wiping out an anticipated $800,000 in rental income, Lightsey says. Poor cash flow also forced a reduction in golf cart inventory from 45 to 10. "Now I have people here to buy and I don't have the resources to sell,'' says Lightsey. "If BP doesn't come through, it will have set me back five years in business.'' At midsummer this year, he'd still had no response to the claim he filed.
Charter boat captain, Panama City
Bob Zales, a charter boat captain and president of the Panama City Boatmen Association, says the impact for their businesses was disastrous. "All customers who had reservations for boat trips canceled. Sometimes they might come back, sometimes not.''
Today, "fishing is as good as it's ever been,'' he says. "The question mark is the future. Fish repopulate every year; we're not going to know how the 2010 class will be for three to five years.'' So has Florida recovered? "Ask me again in five years,'' says Zales. "There's still a lot of oil that's unaccounted for.''
Escambia County commissioner
"We're not fully recovered. There are legitimate claims that aren't going to be paid. BP payments don't make up for a lost year. There were job losses and businesses lost.'' His own business fell casualty too: After 34 years of independence, he merged Grover Robinson & Associates Realty with Coldwell Banker.