Gov. Charlie Crist proclaimed a state of emergency for Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties Thursday, as the risk increased that oil from the Gulf of Mexico spill would reach the state's shores.
Crist cited reports that oil had been caught up in the loop current, which sweeps around the Florida peninsula, saying this created a "potential threat to additional counties bordering the Gulf and the Atlantic seaboard."
The extent of the threat to South Florida remains unclear. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said late Thursday afternoon that "only a very small amount" of oil had entered the loop current. But she was unable to quantify it, and she acknowledged that an unknown amount of oil remained under the surface.
BP acknowledged Thursday that the daily amount of oil pouring from the ocean floor was significantly more than the 210,000 gallons originally estimated. A live video feed of the leak posted online at the insistence of members of Congress shows what appears to be a large plume of oil and gas still spewing next to the tube that's carrying some of it to the surface.
"What you see are real-time images of a real-world disaster unfolding 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf," said U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass. "These videos stand as a scalding, blistering indictment of BP's inattention to the scope and size of the greatest environmental catastrophe in the history of the United States."
After holding off shore for weeks, heavy crude began pouring into Louisiana's coastal wetlands, A young brown pelican was found dead, its neck and one wing matted with oil, at the Breton National Wildlife Refuge.
So far, no similar threat has emerged for Florida. But authorities are trying to gather more information to better gauge the threat. Lubchenco said the government was deploying additional ships and planes to assess the extent of the subsurface oil and the trajectory of the oil in the loop current.
Crist, who had previously issued emergency declarations for the Panhandle and the upper west coast, also Thursday proclaimed a state of emergency in Collier, Lee, Charlotte and Monroe counties. A state of emergency allows the state to coordinate the emergency response and seek federal aid.
Whether any oil caught in the current will end up on beaches and mangrove coasts in the Keys and southeast Florida is unknown. Even if it comes this way, it could simply head north in the Gulf Stream and go out to sea. But officials have said that prevailing winds blowing west are likely to bring at least some oil to southeast Florida, most likely in a congealed, less-toxic form known as tar balls.
Facing the likelihood that tar balls will bob up along the southeast Florida coast, emergency officials from Broward County's coastal cities met Thursday morning at Hollywood's emergency operations center on Stirling Road.
Chuck Lanza, the county's emergency management director, said there was a "high probability" that tar balls from the Gulf spill will appear about 20 miles off the coast.
What's unknown is how much will wash ashore.
Authorities are preparing for their arrival by mapping out places along beaches where debris typically collects — such as areas near jetties — so they can know where to look for blobs of congealed oil.
"If it does escape from the Gulf Stream, we know where they will end up, based on the history of where seaborne debris ends up," he said.
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