Obama’s Florida Gulf Coast visit didn’t do anything ‘except cause a lot of traffic,’ according to Pensacola official

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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Florida’s Panhandle counties are reporting improved communication and response times to requests for equipment this week, but they don’t attribute any gains to President Obama’s stop in Pensacola last Tuesday as part of his Gulf Coast tour. The counties have taken control of communication and have demanded decision-making power on the ground.

“It didn’t do anything for us as far as I know except cause a lot of traffic,” said Buck Lee, executive director of Pensacola’s Santa Rosa Island Authority said of the presidential pit-stop. “I think the greasy wheel gets the attention.”

Okaloosa County issued an ultimatum to the Unified Command Center last week, and county commissioner Wayne Harris said it has since paid off. The lines of communication are now open. Harris said the Unified Command Center in Mobile, Ala., agreed to fully support anything and everything local officials need.

“We were going to close the pass off and protect our beaches, even if that meant jail time,” Harris said. “We could not afford to wait any longer for help.”

Harris said Obama’s visit to the Gulf Coast has had nothing to do with improvements and he didn’t even come close to Okaloosa County. The only stop the president made in Florida was in Pensacola, which is closer to the Alabama line than Okaloosa County.

“I don’t want to bash the president but he hasn’t made any impact to this area,” Harris said.

National Incident Commander Admiral Thad Allen authorized the creation of deputy incident commanders in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, to speed up cleanup efforts and close those communication gaps.

“As this crisis continues to evolve, these individuals will help us make sure our states have the autonomy they need to respond as quickly and effectively as possible to problems that arise on the ground,” Allen said in a statement. “We are committed to empowering our state and local authorities with the autonomy and resources they need to meet the evolving threat from this oil spill, and that’s exactly what this new command structure will help us do.”

Though Okaloosa County got favorable results from its recent ultimatum, it still faces a major problem: it hasn’t seen any funding or resources yet from BP or the federal government or the Unified Command Center yet. Until the money starts flowing in from the Unified Command Center, Harris said Okaloosa County will have to pay for cleanup costs from county reserves.

“The problems are exacerbated by delay,” Harris said.

Escambia County is fronting the costs out of its reserves, too. Commissioner Grover Robinson said Escambia County only has about $12 million dollars in reserves, and, though the State of Florida has given about $1.3 million to the county, it might need to use $9 million of the reserve money by the end of July.

Robinson said BP and the Unified Command Center are finally starting to trust local authorities on what works and what doesn’t. “The process is getting better,” he said.

Nearby Santa Rosa County doesn’t have the money to pay for cleanup costs upfront on its own, so it’s depending on the Unified Command Center and is partnering with nearby counties to ensure its response needs are met.

“We are working on better communication,” said Brad Baker, Santa Rosa County’s emergency services coordinator. “We need somebody to be able to communicate with [the] Unified Command [Center] as to what we need.”

On June 11, Baker said his county teamed with Okaloosa and Escambia counties to send a representative to the Unified Command Center to ensure the three counties were adequately represented and received supplies and materials when and where they’re needed.

Baker said the representative’s immediate efforts led to the Unified Command Center placing branch directors in each of the county’s Emergency Operation Centers.

BP, the U.S. Coast Guard and other influential parties have sent permanent liaisons to Escambia County, too, which has helped with communication.

“We’re actually able to walk across the room and talk to somebody instead of waiting for them to return phone calls or e-mails,” said Escambia County Public Information Manager Sonya Daniel.

With tourism rates down at least 30 percent, with some estimates as high as a 70 percent drop-off, the local officials in Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties want to fix the problems before more potential vacationers cancel their trips.

“Tourism is at least a third of our local economy,” Harris said. “We depend on it.”