Key West — A spokesman for the Florida Keys tourism interests Wednesday blasted the news media for what he characterized as exaggerated and sometimes misleading reporting after the Coast Guard reported tar balls had been discovered on area beaches.
“I believe some local and national broadcasters went too far with this,” said Andy Newman, media director for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council. “They did not exercise enough patience and restraint to wait to for results.”
He said he was unable to determine the economic cost of the tar ball bulletins. “I can’t give you a number. But I’m hearing about an increase in reservations cancelations, and the phones are ringing more furiously than before.”
At the same time, Key West Mayor Craig Cates said he believes Coast Guard officials mishandled both the timing and the wording of a news release that triggered a mass migration of news reporters to the Lower Keys. That news release said that 20 tar balls had been discovered on the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West, and that they were to be shipped to a laboratory for analysis.
“There are 8,000 commercial vessels that pass by our coast each year,” said Newman. “There are tar balls up and down the coast daily.”
Newman said, “I understand why [the Coast Guard] put a news release out. If they didn’t, people would find out and think the Coast Guard was hiding something.”
Cates said he too understood that the tar balls were news. “I think the Coast Guard didn’t explain it well enough, that these tar balls might not be connected [with the BP spill],” he said.
Cates said he has discussed his concern with Coast Guard officials. “I don’t fault them; we live and learn,” he said. “Next time they’ll have information for sure.”
Newman said the tourism council has a $2.6 million emergency fund that could be used to let potential visitors know that the Keys remain open as usual.
But the crisis over the Gulf oil has not passed.
Keys residents continue to prepare. More than 100 volunteers have completed a hazardous materials course at the Florida Keys Community College, said Bridget McDonald, with the non-profit Green Living and Energy Education. “The Keys is a community that pulls together at times like this,” she said.