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State officials begin to fortify Panhandle's fragile bays

With oil still a county away, and a cloudless sky overhead, the beaches teemed with Father's Day visitors  Sunday as state officials began to fortify the delicate bays that surround this popular state park.

In St. Joe Bay to the west, coast guard vessels and state Fish and Wildlife officers laid 26,000 feet of the 131,000 feet of boom scheduled to be coiled along the tip of Cape San Blas to the shoreline along the bay, one of the fragile estuaries east of Panama City.

Gov. Charlie Crist and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole requested and received eight skimmers to start training crew, as part of a detailed plan to protect the five sensitive bays in the eastern Panhandle, said Shane Strum, Crist's chief of staff.

Sole also approved a request by Franklin County officials to set up a blockade of  barges and boom that would close East Pass in Apalachicola, home to the most fertile oyster beds in the gulf and the economic lifeblood of the region.

"We watched what's happened in Louisiana and how their marshes were impacted and what we've tried to do is lead forward -- get the assets and have the boom ready," Crist told the Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times. More here.

Crist inspecting boom at St. Joe Crist and Sole spent Father's Day on the emerald-hued waters of the bay, inspecting the boom work and riding a skimmer boat as its crew practiced and trained for the job of flushing the oil.

At the shore, families dug for scallops and thanked the governor for opening scallop season early, Crist said.

Strum said that tar balls had arrived in Walton County west of here, but no sign of oil had yet arrived in the fragile bays.

Crist said this is the fourth consecutive weekend he has spent monitoring the state's response efforts and one of nearly a dozen trips to the region since the saga began two months ago.

(Photo: Crist inspecting boom hear St. Joe Bay, photo by Shane Strum.)

"I think it's working," Crist said of the preparation efforts. "Nothing is perfect. There's a huge amount of oil out there."

Crist spoke with patrons eating at the restaurant at the St. Joe Marina and met visitors from Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia.

"That was very encouraging to see," he said.