First Lady Michelle Obama waded a few steps into the gulf Monday (July 12th) and confirmed what she just told the rest of America: This beach is the same paradise it’s always been.
“Truly one of the best ways that fellow Americans can help is to come on down here and spend some money,” Obama said to cheers in the sand behind the Boardwalk Beach Resort, where a select crowd of about 100 gathered to hear her speak on the BP oil spill.
“On behalf of my family, the administration, know that we are working on your behalf,” she told locals. “We care deeply about getting things right here, and I look forward to coming back down to the coast to get some more sand in my shoes.”
The first lady shuttled between some of Bay County’s points of pride — the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, the Panama City Beach Welcome Center, the shoreline resort and a locally owned ice cream parlor — in a historic daylong visit. Obama, who said she wanted to see the Gulf Coast’s “little slice of paradise” for herself, is the only sitting first lady to tour the county.
She listened to business owners, tourism and government officials voice concerns about a waning economy devastated by misperceptions about Deepwater Horizon’s impact and vowed to “get the word out to the rest of the country.”
“There are still thousands of miles of beaches that have not been touched by the spill,” Obama said. “These places are still clean, they are safe and they are open for business. It’s important for the rest of the nation to know it’s still as vibrant and beautiful as ever.”
Although she recognized the oil spill as the “worst environmental disaster our nation has ever seen,” she emphasized the spill’s limited impact on the region — tar balls have washed ashore in Bay County, and a dead loggerhead turtle washed up on Tyndall Air Force Base on Monday, but favorable winds have kept a large plume of oil from local shores.
“These people, the residents and the visitors, are the lifeblood of the Gulf Coast,” Obama said, “and that’s why it’s so important to spread the word that despite what everyone is seeing on TV and reading in the newspaper, that most of the coast is still open for business.
“There is one thing I’ve learned after spending a very short time here and that is that it is a very friendly place,” she added. “And people should come here.”
Security was heightened around the resort Monday, with ticket-holders passing through airport-tight security and a bomb-sniffing dog checking reporters’ equipment. Authorities patrolled the balconies above, guarded all sides of the area and stationed three boats in the gulf for the duration of the event.
Before Obama arrived, a lone protester made it a few steps from the media table several yards from the podium, carrying a banner that read “Florida demands a criminal investigation of BP and Halliburton” and yelling, “We want answers, Obama!”
Two officers quickly pinned the young man against the back of a Bay County Sheriff’s Office vehicle and eventually drove him off the beach. It was not immediately known late Monday whether the man was charged.
Obama visited the resort after landing at the new airport, where Panama City Mayor Scott Clemons, airport Executive Director Randy Curtis, Bay County Commission Chairman Bill Dozier and Panama City Beach Mayor Gayle Oberst met her.
Obama greeted Oberst with a hug before she and the legislators drove to the Welcome Center, where she and regional stakeholders discussed fallout from the spill.
Lonnie Andrews, owner of Smoke N Butts Barbeque, told the First Lady he’s got “a dying company.” Yonnie Patronis, whose family owns Capt. Anderson’s, said vacationers’ fears about eating seafood, along with a drop in oyster suppliers, led him to take oysters off his menu. Patronis and Clemons lamented that BP has recruited all the oyster harvesters and local service workers to help clean up the spill.
“This is a drastic thing to us and I think most of us feel pretty helpless,” the Panama City Beach mayor told Obama. “We are going to see some tough times.”
Oberst, like the Boardwalk’s assistant banquet manager Vanessa Jones, was encouraged by Obama’s visit.
“I feel better, much better,” Jones said after listening to Obama speak behind the resort. “You don’t feel abandoned; the fact that she actually came and took the time out — it’s acknowledged, it’s not something that’s put on a back burner, it’s a priority for her.”
The county commission chairman said he thought the greatest service Obama’s trip provided was “shining a light on our beautiful beaches.”
“I believe that’s the biggest point of today,” Dozier said. “That’s the biggest take-away for me.”
After noting she had sand in her shoes, Obama kicked off her sandals and walked the shoreline Oberst, Tourism Development Council Executive Director Dan Rowe and Carol Browner, the president’s adviser on climate change.
“I look forward to coming back down and hopefully getting some more sand in my shoes,” she told the crowd of supporters before making a final stop at Pink Pelican ice cream parlor on Richard Jackson Boulevard.
Owner Rick Dorman said he was told Obama would be stopping by his business “about 3 minutes” before she and her entourage arrived.
The First Lady chatted with patrons about softball games and young girls’ fashion accessories while eating her Chocolate Hurricane ice cream and posing for pictures.
Dorman, who told Obama she had come to the right place and that he was glad for her business, tied it back to her purpose in visiting Bay County.
“We’re all worried about the oil,” he said. “But I worry more about the perception of people who don’t live here.”
“It’s fantastic that she came,” Panama City Beach councilman John Reichard said on the beach. “She gave a good message to the country that we are open, we are clean, and we are beautiful.”
Written By: Sarah Owen