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DISASTERS

Florida Panhandle County Takes Oil Matters Into Its Own Hands

A Florida Panhandle community that's been victimized by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico says it can fight the destruction of its beaches and waterways better than the federal government -- but it's left with one problem: "Who will pay the bill?

Now that tar balls are washing ashore along the beaches of Okaloosa Island, county commissioners say it's time to stop waiting for the federal government's Unified Command Center to approve closing its East Pass -- the area leading to the docks of the profitable fishing village in the town of Destin.

“Over the last 50 days," Okaloosa County Commissioner Chairman Wayne Harris told FoxNews.com, "I like to say we played the game, if you will. We did what we were required to do, which was wait for all the permitting processes and wait for all the permission ....

"Over that period of time, it was obvious to us that somebody in those levels were not communicating with each other.”  

Frustration started when the county devised a $9 million plan to implement an extensive boom system of barges and air curtains to close off all inlets and bayous from incoming oil. But the government rejected that proposal and began reducing the number of areas a system would protect. That, Harris says, is when the county decided to take matters into its own hands. 

“We were getting the bureaucratic shuffle," he said. "We couldn’t wait for the bureaucratic process. We could not wait for indecisiveness. 

"This is our county, and our people depend on us to make decisions.” 

John Ward, public information officer for the Unified Command Center in Mobile, Ala., says a 14,000-foot boom system is being placed in nearby Choctawhatchee Bay this week. But Okaloosa has already begun preparing to install its own boom system at East Pass, which also is combating an erosion problem. For now, Harris says, the county is using credit cards to pay the tab. He says the county has a limited reserve fund that can cover just one month of the cost of the system. 

“Now they’re letting us do what we want to do,” he said. “The dilemma is, doing what we want to do ... we’ve stood the chance of not getting reimbursed.”

And Okaloosa isn't alone in its decision to go it alone.

“A lot of counties are going beyond what the Unified Command Center is doing … A lot of people are concerned about their counties,” Ward says. 

Harris says Okaloosa will file a claim with BP for the cost of its boom system, but it also hopes to use some of a $25 million grant BP has given the state of Florida to help pay for costs like $16,500 for the use of an air curtain each day and $850,000 each month for six barges. 

Okaloosa is already hurting financially, as the oil spill has caused many tourists to cancel their summer vacations to the area. 

The Breakers condominium on Okaloosa Island is 37 percent behind compared with the same time last year, says General Manager Kathy Houchins. And by the end of this month, she said, that number probably will pass 50 percent. 

Houchins, a board member on the county’s Tourist Development Council, says the area’s total loss is anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent so far. 

“Cancellations are coming in left and right. It doesn’t take long for the word to get out,” she said. “People are calling in saying, ‘We aren’t going to vacation where there is oil at, we’re just not going to fight that.’” 

July is the area's busiest month for tourists, and the Breakers is usually at full occupancy. But the resort, which has experienced more than a $100,000 loss in revenue so far, has laid off four employees and cut back its full-time workers’ hours. 

“Right now, we are wide open for availability,” Houchins says. “I’ll bet you we’re probably going to look at $700,000 or $800,000 loss in our season.”