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Worry simmers that oil could flow toward Grand Strand

For many on the Grand Strand, the ocean is life.

"Everything that happens to it affects me," said Patrick Kelly, who owns Captain Smiley Charter fishing tours in Little River and takes many of his 500 customers a year on fishing tours 35 to 60 miles off the Carolinas' shore before meeting up with the warm, fast-flowing Gulf Stream current.

Kelly is among those watching the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, hoping none of the waste finds its way into the Gulf Stream, which flows around the tip of Florida and up the East Coast past South Carolina to Cape Hatteras, N.C., where it veers east.

If it - or any other spill - threatened the Grand Strand's coast, local emergency departments trained to defend against hurricanes andwildfires would have to immediately turn to others for help.

"The county has no resources for that. It would be a federal response. We would work toward coordinating everything for a response," Horry County Emergency Management Director Randy Webster said. "It is a wide unknown. I have a thousand questions if things were to come this way about how things would work."

Adam Myrick, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, said any impact along the coast would need a federal response, with state and local officials providing logistical coordination and support.

Myrtle Beach assistant city manager Ron Andrews said the city doesn't have the resources on hand to respond directly to a spill and would have to call for help, too. But the U.S. Coast Guard in Charleston is keeping coastal communities apprised of the Gulf situation. Andrews said the key is stopping the flow as soon as possible.

Though most people say the chances are slim and that oil in the Gulf Stream is a worst-case scenario, the Gulf of Mexico rupture is still flowing, and the longer it continues, the better the chances the East Coast could be affected.

"It's a wait-and-see-and-hope-it-doesn't-happen," said Myrtle Beach spokesman Mark Kruea. "The quicker they can act in the Gulf, the better off we will all be."

Officials will monitor the situation and prepare as best they can, Webster said.

"The good thing about it is, we would know it was coming because of the impacts along the East Coast getting here," Webster said.

The likely effect here would be tar-balls washing up along the Strand coast, said Tom Swatzel with the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

"It looks like, from some of the information I've read, if some of that product were to make it around the [Florida] Keys and up the Atlantic seaboard, it would be in the form of these tar-balls and not liquid form. It's still a problem," Swatzel said. "Most people who are in the fishing business in South Carolina, whether it's recreational or commercial, their thoughts and prayers go to those in the Gulf. We wouldn't want those kinds of impacts in South Carolina."

Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League on the Grand Strand, said his group is not going south at this point but is focusing on the policy implications for South Carolina, "especially since we have a legislature that is encouraging drilling off our coast."

He said following the news of the Gulf spill means that "every day the magnitude of it dawns on us - it's a greater problem than we had imagined. It's inconceivably large.

"If we cannot figure this one out, we are in big trouble," he said.

Even if oil remnants don't wash ashore here, the impact of the spill will be far-reaching.

At Wayne Mershon's business, Kenyon Seafood, concerns have increased in the days since the spill, said the Murrells Inlet resident. He has not seen dramatic price increases yet, but if supply decreases, prices will climb, he said.

"It affects the snapper, the grouper and trickles all the way down to the bait because 90 percent of our bait comes out of the Gulf of Mexico," Mershon said. "It is an environmental disaster, and I don't think the full impact of it will be felt for months to come, even if they corrected it today. It's a very bad situation. It's going to make seafood prices go up, and if it goes up too much more, people are going to quit eating it."

Surfrider Foundation co-chair Jared Hendrix remembers when a Portuguese tanker leaked oil off the South Carolina coast in 1999. No oil washed up on Grand Strand beaches, but Hendrix and many others volunteered to help clean the sea birds that came ashore coated with oil, washing them in buckets of dish detergent in a vacant warehouse on the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base.

"It was sad. Even though they were cleaned, there still was a high mortality rate," he said. "These are animals that are not used to humans, not used to being touched. The stress was really hard on them. I think the survival rate was between 10 and 20 percent."

Local Surfrider members had been scheduled to attend a conference on offshore drilling later this month, even before the Gulf accident happened, so Hendrix said the timing is ironic. Offshore drilling is a fight the foundation has taken on before and isn't afraid to get into again.

"We thought it went away and that we were in a good position, especially with a Democrat in the White House, at least for four years," Hendrix said. But President Obama has given permission for exploration off the East Coast - work, Hendrix said, that carries dangers.

"Even simple exploration has a negative impact on the environment, the wildlife," he said. "Yes, if the oil industry came here it would bring jobs, but are we willing to risk it? You hear the politicians and the oil industry talking about how it's so much safer now, but [the Gulf spill] shows you they are not able to handle it. This is something they anticipate could happen, and they are still not ready for it.

"Can you imagine an oil spill here taking out a whole summer? The three months everyone depends on?"

Kelly said he, like many others, is worried and watching to see what happens in the Gulf.

"The world is just one big current," he said. "If you throw a plastic bottle or some oil in the water, it ends up affecting the system. We've got a really special place here. It would be catastrophic if oil were to wash up on our coast."