Panhandle business owners take a tar hit

By Jim Wallace - bio | email 

Destin, FL (WALB) –- The Gulf Oil Crisis worsens for the state of Florida, where thousands of South Georgians vacation most years at this time.

In Destin and Fort Walton Beaches, more tar balls washing onto the shore in greater numbers.  At Henderson State Park you can not get to the water without stepping in them.

Panhandle restaurant and hotel owners say their business has been down about 30 to 50 percent, while some people have rushed to come before the crisis hits these shores.  But now that the tar balls are on the beach, one  business owner told me she  will close down.

Photographer Jean Williams has owned her beach photography business in the Gulf for 20 years, specializing in family photos with the ocean in the background.

As she took pictures of the Schroeder family from Texas,  tar balls were washing up. "This is probably going to destroy my business for the rest of the year," Williams said.

As the photo shoot continued, the Schroeder family children got tar on the bottom of their feet, and did not like it.

Mike Schroeder and his family drove two days from Texas to take these pictures and vacation before the oil crisis reached their favorite vacation spot.

Williams says she knows this is her last customer.  "Even with the tar washing in , everybody's been anticipating, I've had a lot of cancellations.  As far as people calling in, there's nothing new."

Mike Schroeder does business with people who own oil companies, and feels the economic impact will reach much more than just the Florida tourist businesses.

"Later it's going to trickle down to us that buy the oil products and stuff.  So it's not just the deal with the tar balls.  It 's going to be something that's long lasting, and I hope we all survive it," Schroeder said.

But for Jean Williams, she is closing down for the summer, and knows other Destin business owners will suffer. "Pretty much anybody that depends on the water , the beach, the scenery, tourism, any of that, It's definitely affecting everyone I've talked to."

Williams said she hopes to start over next year, if the beach is cleaned up by then.

Vacationers like Jay Patel of Mobile Alabama said they didn't know what to think about it. "It's just bad.  It's about eating up the sand. It feels like that. Then the oil, it's all greasy."

But some people said that they have seen worse before.

"I'm remember in the 80's and the Exxon Valdez and we swam out there and had tar all over our bathing suits.  So we'll come back, it's really pretty," said Paula Schroeder of Texas.

But Destin natives say they know their community businesses are already hurt by the Gulf Crisis, and tar balls on the beach will hurt them much worse.

"I heard that people are curious and will come to check it out, but obviously it's not going to be the same.  I just hope they can stay afloat," said Tanner Defrancisco.

Tar balls in evidence more and more in the Florida panhandle.  At Panama City Beach, none Thursday morning, but the hotel manager where we are staying said they were only half full.

But they think they will fill up this weekend, because they believe curious people will come to see those tar balls in person.

Florida Fish and Wildlife officials confirmed they had a dolphin beach itself Wednesday day in the Pensacola Pass, and that it died in route to the animal rescue facility.

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