DESTIN, Fla. — Federal forecasts on Thursday indicated that the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill is edging increasingly eastward — away from Louisiana and closer to the Florida Panhandle, sparking alarm in the state capital and warnings along the state's Gulf coast.
Cleanup workers were pressed into dark-of-night schedules to scour some of the state's most pristine beaches for tar balls around the clock.
"Coastal regions near and west of Panama City may experience shoreline impacts by Friday,'' a situation report from Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's office warned. Okaloosa County's health department advised swimmers to keep out of the water off Okaloosa Island, a stretch of beaches on the outskirts of Destin. But a dozen tourists could still be seen wading in the warm waters as a lifeguard shouted a warning. "I've worked around oil in the past as a mechanic and far more worse stuff has stuck to me than this,'' said Randy Morris, 53, of Adams, Tenn., who was on a family vacation.
Morris pointed to visible black tar balls below the clear ankle-deep water and declared, "Except for little black specks it seems safe to me.''
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Nearby, a Fort Walton Beach family of five likewise defied warnings to leave the oil pollution to trained workers, with father James Williams, 32, declaring, "Until it gets worse we'll keep coming back.''
His daughter scooped up tar balls with a pink plastic shovel and put them in a plastic bag.
BP crews were instructed to turn to cleanup efforts at night, according to an update from Tallahassee, and in Escambia County, close to the Mississippi border, night-time sweeps were scheduled for Thursday on Pensacola Beach and Peridido.
The sweltering summer sun melts tar balls, making them harder to collect. And daytime labor is taking its toll on specially trained workers in plastic jumpsuits and gloves.
Another complication loomed on the horizon as well. The National Hurricane Center in Miami said a depression in the Pacific Ocean has become Tropical Storm Blas. Forecasters said the weather disturbance could affect the spill by whipping up winds over the Gulf and shift the oil in various directions.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, in charge of oil-spill operations, said at a morning briefing that officials were monitoring Blas as well as weather off the coast of Africa. In the event of a hurricane, workers would have to stop spill recovery efforts days before — letting the crude spill freely into the Gulf to be spread by the winds — and it would take days to resume the cleanup once hurricane winds dissipated.
A week ago, globs of oil reached Pensacola's Perdido Pass, and cleanup efforts have been concentrated on the western end of the Panhandle.
But the weekend was expected to see the oil arrive further east from Santa Rosa County to Bay County, home to spring-break mecca Panama City Beach.
With more oil expected throughout the weekend, Okaloosa's public safety director, Dino Villani, said the county plans to line up barges across Destin's East Pass waterway to close off the area to boaters and secure boom to capture the oil slicks.
Villani said the past two days have brought some of the largest sightings to date, describing some of the tar patties washing ashore as the size of "pies.''
Figueroa reported from Destin, Rosenberg, from Miami.