Part 1 of Series: "Tribute to the Gulf": Taking a look at the past year

By: Erica Rakow Email
By: Erica Rakow Email

Panama City Beach-- On April 20th, BP’s deepwater horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf, killing 11 workers.

"The rig was just fully engulfed. Flames about 300 feet in the air," said U.S. Coast Guard pilot, Tom Hickey.

It wasn't long before the panhandle felt the impact.

"If the oil reaches the sand, our well-being here in this community, is going to be gone for a long time," said Destin Resident, Swe De.

As the oil drifted east, Governor Charlie Crist, declared a state of emergency.

"We've been working with the Coast Guard, the FDEP and other agencies to make sure that we're all working on the same playbook and that we're going to attack this very aggressively," said Bay County Emergency Director, Mark Bowen.

BP contractors converted several panhandle locations, including the Panama City marina into a staging area for boom and other heavy equipment. County commissioners approved a 3 million dollar boom system to protect the St. Andrew's pass.

"That's where we'll fight this product with the most aggression we can possibly throw at it," said Bowen.

While Louisiana received the worst of the spill, the affects on our area were minimal by comparison. In mid June, two pieces of rig equipment washed up in Miramar Beach and Panama City Beach. There were also oiled wildlife and tar balls.

"What we're telling folks is, not to touch them, don't pick them up, don't play with them. Avoid them. That's the most important thing that we can get out to the public right now," said Beach Safety Division Chief, Tracey Vause about the tar balls.

Walton County posted controversial beach health advisories, while clean-up crews sprang into action at the first sign of tar balls. NOAA continued to close huge sections of the Gulf to fishing. So local fishermen and boat captains went to work in BP's vessels of opportunity program. But as the oil slick grew in the gulf, so did frustrations.

"We haven't seen anybody that can write a check. Because that's the first thing I ask them. You know, can you write a check?," said Bay County Commissioner, George Gainer.

Local economies slumped as tourists cancelled reservations. And the oil continued to spew. One by one, a containment cap, a top hat, a top kill and junk shot all failed to seal the well. It wasn't until July 15th, 85 days after the explosion; engineers stopped the leak with a new, tight-fitting containment stack. Twenty days later, they placed a permanent seal on the well.

"At this point, we are definitely in a recovery phase," said Bowen.

Despite the end of the leak, problems continue. Research teams are studying the long-term effects of the spill on the Gulf and business owners and tourism workers are fighting the claims process for money they lost because of the spill. It's a process that could go on for years.

Tune in to NewsChannel 7 all this week for our special series "Tribute to the Gulf" as we approach, April 20th, the one year anniversary of BP’s oil rig explosion.

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