‘All looking good ... thank God’: Three years on, there’s little sign of the spill that shook Destin

Matt Algarin and Tina Harbuck
Three years later, the BP oil spill has become almost an afterthought in the minds of visitors and residents.

It's been three years since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, 2010, sending shockwaves from the coast of Texas all the way to Destin.

Looking back at the events that transpired, Destin Mayor Sam Seevers said the city showed a tremendous resolve as it was confronted with an environmental disaster that would go down in history as one of the worst ever. In Destin though, the issue wasn't as much the oil as it was the perception of oil.

"Our city faced a media issue and not an oil spill issue," she said. "It could not have happened at a worse time — we were at the beginning of tourist season and embarking on an upturn in the economy, or so we thought — and individual businesses lost so much revenue as a result of negative publicity."

From disaster to dollars

But three year later, Seevers said talks of the oil spill are not as common as they used to be, as they have mostly shifted to discussions about the Restore Act and how money allocated to Okaloosa County will be spent.

Based on the Restore Act, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas will receive 80 percent of the total fines that were imposed against BP for its role in the Deepwater Horizon spill. Approximately 75 percent of the funding will be split between eight Northwest Florida counties.

If BP was assessed $10 billion in fines, for example, Okaloosa, Walton, Santa Rosa, Escambia, Bay, Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla counties would receive about $420 million.

Okaloosa County would receive about $63.9 million.

For now, officials are in the process of forming the Okaloosa County Restore Act Committee, which will be tasked with creating and implementing criteria that potential projects must meet to receive funding. Seevers said she would like to see Destin "have a seat at that table."

Mother Nature was ‘truly looking out for Destin’

One discussion that has floated around the city since the oil spill is “what happens if a big storm comes through,” and whether or not oil will wash ashore from a churning Gulf.

Seevers said tropical storms since the spill have not caused that scenario, and there is no reason to suggest it would be any different with future storms. She said the city continues to be updated daily from SCAT (Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique) teams and Okaloosa County as a whole has not seen any tar balls wash ashore in "quite a long time."

"We just had an amazing beach restoration project where we pumped hundreds of yards of sugar white sand from an offshore borrow site and we had no issues whatsoever, which was hopeful," she told The Log. "Mother Nature deals with things in her own way and she was truly looking out for Destin."

Although there are no visual reminders, the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge is "still collecting samples from deceased dolphins" as part of a long-term research program through the National Marine Fisheries, says Amanda Wilkerson, executive director of the refuge, noting that they are not seeing any impact in day-to-day operations.

"There is nothing that we are going to see visually," she said.

Since shortly before the oil spill, researchers noticed an abnormally large number of Dolphin deaths along the Northern Gulf of Mexico. A study is currently under way to determine the cause of the mass strandings and deaths, and whether it's natural or associated with exposure to oil from the spill.

Wilkerson said her team has noticed a significant increase in the number of calls they receive for animals and marine mammals in distress since the 2010 oil spill.

"More people seem to be aware of sick wildlife," she told The Log. "We have picked up more wildlife in beach areas than normal."

Captain’s sound the all clear

Out on the water in Destin, local boat captains say the coast is clear when it comes to oil.

"Everything looks normal," said Capt. Shawn Dahnke of the ExtaSea. "As far as I can tell it's all looking good ... thank God."

When the Deepwater Horizon oil well blew and spewed oil throughout the Gulf of Mexico, Dahnke was one of the first in our area to spot oil off our coast. Dahnke, who had been out searching in his boat, ventured back to the docks with a bottle that appeared to be covered in oil.

Capt. Ken Bolden of the Just-B-Cause gives it an all clear as well.

"I haven't seen anything," Bolden said. "I haven't seen any sick fish."

As a matter of fact, in 2011, Bolden said he saw a little bump in business.

"All that advertising they were doing gave us a little boost," he said.

After the oil spill, the airways were filled with advertisements from BP saying the Gulf Coast was fine and to come on down.

"I can't see any lingering affects," said Capt. Mike Graef of the charter boat Huntress.

"The fish are big and healthy. I think we got pretty lucky. I think Mother Nature cleansed the Gulf ... we definitely dodged a bullet," Graef said.

Looking back at the lasting legacy of the oil spill, Seevers told The Log that the city showed tremendous resiliency as the BP oil spill "unfolded in our back yard." She said the city as a whole worked through the disaster, and residents and businesses assisted those who needed help.

"Our charter boat captains joined in the fight to protect our waters and we stood hand in hand with the county to tackle the tough issues and we survived it," she said. "I am very proud of the way everyone handled such a difficult situation."

A message left for Craig Savage, director of media relations and communications Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, was not returned.