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Destin mayor 'terrified' by oil's threat

By A. Pawlowski, CNN
Tourism is a critical part of the economy in Destin, Florida, known for its clear, blue-green waters and sugary-white beaches.
Tourism is a critical part of the economy in Destin, Florida, known for its clear, blue-green waters and sugary-white beaches.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sarah "Sam" Seevers became mayor of Destin, Florida, a month before the Gulf oil spill
  • Some tar balls have washed ashore, but there's no oil on the beaches, Seevers says
  • Seevers: Bookings have been down 30 percent from what hotels were expecting
  • "We are preparing for the absolute worst, but we are praying for the best," she says

(CNN) -- The beaches of Destin, Florida, are stunningly beautiful.

Appalachian quartz crystals make the sand sugary-white, and thousands of vacationers flock each year to enjoy the area's clear, blue-green waters.

That's why even the thought of brown, gooey muck coming ashore is tough to stomach.

"It is gorgeous and the fear that there would be some type of oil or tar balls on the beach -- it is frightening," said Sarah "Sam" Seevers, who became mayor of Destin in March.

Just a month later, the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico began to unfold.

Seevers spoke with CNN.com on Tuesday afternoon, in between meetings with town officials and BP representatives. She shared her fears and frustration about the looming threat.

Gulf Coast beaches update

The following is an edited version of that interview:

Sarah "Sam" Seevers became mayor of Destin, Florida, a month before the oil disaster began.
Sarah "Sam" Seevers became mayor of Destin, Florida, a month before the oil disaster began.

CNN: What's the situation in Destin now?

Mayor Sarah "Sam" Seevers: Today it is sunny, it is hot; the beaches are absolutely pristine; the water is emerald green, beautiful, clear. No signs of oil at all on our beaches miraculously.

CNN: Any tar balls?

Seevers: We had a few the day before yesterday about the size of your fingertip wash up on one of the beaches, and that's been it so far.

A little bit of history for you: Tar balls have been a part of our life forever. I've lived here over 35 years, and we've always had tar balls every now and then.

We may go five years and not see any tar balls, and then we'll see a few. That's just a way of life on the Gulf of Mexico.

CNN: Any smell of oil on the beaches?

Seevers: No, not at all.

CNN: Are people in the water?

Seevers: People are in the water, they're swimming, they're having a wonderful, great time. The water temperature is running about 73-74 degrees so it is actually business as usual in Destin today.

Video: Destin braces for oil
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CNN: How has the spill impacted tourism in Destin?

Seevers: It most definitely has impacted tourism. I think a lot of families that have planned June, July, August vacations are very hesitant now, and we have had considerable cancellations in the area.

I'm trying to get a pulse on the exact number ... but I think some of the [bookings] have been 30 percent [down from what hotels were expecting for this time of year.]

We get increased bookings by the Fridays [for weekend stays] and then it drops off again because people are very fearful.

CNN: What are hotels and restaurants telling you about how things look right now?

Seevers: They're slower, most definitely slower, and they're very concerned about their future economic situation.

I'm sure some of the families that are really hesitant to keep their vacations at the end of June, they're fearful that they won't be able to utilize the beaches.

We're monitoring the situation, and we keep it live on our website, CityOfDestin.com.

We are preparing for the absolute worst, but we are praying for the best and trying to keep the short-drive visitors coming because it's absolutely gorgeous out there.

CNN: With Fourth of July coming, this must be the peak season?

Seevers: Absolutely. We start our season pretty much around May 15. A lot of the businesses rely solely -- their entire income is based on May, June, July and August -- summertime months -- and that revenue will sustain them through the course of the year. That's why this couldn't have happened at a more critical time for Destinites than now.

CNN: You worked in the tourism industry for 17 years. Can you explain how crucial tourism is to the local economy?

Seevers: It is the local economy.

CNN: Do you think there's a perception problem -- there is no oil, yet people think there is?

Seevers: Yes, right now, kind of. Every time you turn on any of the news channels, you see it and you see the photographs and people are saying, "Florida beaches," instead of the area that it's really in.

Plus, even to our west where there are a little bit more tar balls -- they're getting it cleaned up pretty readily, and the beaches are all open as of today. There is no beach closed in the state of Florida.

CNN: What's the tourism outlook for the Fourth of July and the rest of the summer?

Seevers: We've had a lot of cancellations.

[But] one family wrote an e-mail to us and said, "We were canceling our reservation." They've come here every single summer, and they were going to cancel because of the oil. They stopped and they said, "We're coming anyway. If there's some oil, we'll help you clean it up because that's how connected we are to your community."

That really meant a lot.

CNN: Florida is used to disasters like hurricanes, but do you think this is the worst threat to local tourism that you've ever faced?

Seevers: This is catastrophic.

I've been through some bad hurricanes -- Hurricane Camille back in 1969, Hurricane Opal in 1995 and that was really bad also. But this will devastate this community not like hurricanes do, where a hurricane can blow in and blow out. This will devastate our community for years if it is not cleaned up properly and not attacked in the water before it hits the beaches.

This is going to be something we have never seen nor ever will see in our history of Destin.

CNN: What do you think of BP's response so far?

Seevers: One of the things I have been concerned about is the fact that -- I want to make sure there are going to be skimmers out in our waters. I've not seen that in Pensacola; it may be there, but I'm not sure where that is.

It's really, really difficult as an elected official when you are responsible for your city, but yet you have absolutely no control of the outcome of the cleanup. That is solely placed in BP's hands through the Unified Command Center out of Mobile, Alabama -- the head of that is the Coast Guard. We certainly trust the Coast Guard, but I want to see [the response], I want to feel it, I want to know that they're there. I don't have that confidence yet.

CNN: What is the plan if the oil starts creeping close to shore?

Seevers: That is in BP's hands. We are assured, through our emergency operations center, that BP will have people -- boots on the ground, so to speak -- to clean it up if it hits our beaches, and we were assured that there would be skimmer boats out there skimming the oil off the top should we see it anywhere within our area.

CNN: Destin has this gorgeous sugary-white beach. How do you feel knowing that the oil is somewhere out there lurking?

Seevers: Terrified.

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