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'When it hits here, we have nothing'

By Ron Mott, NBC News Correspondent

PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. – For now the coast is clear, which is good news for tourists enjoying some fun in the sun this week on Florida's white-sand beaches.

But for residents whose livelihoods depend on a steady flow of summer vacationers, news that oil is within striking distance here left many with looks of pained resignation in their faces.

Sandy Gray grew up in the area. She donned a bikini and headed to the beach Wednesday – her digital camera in tow – to capture what she fears are the dwindling final days of pristine shoreline for quite a while.

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Like many, she hoped that winds and currents would keep the oil suspended in the open sea, giving crews time to clean up the spill before it washed ashore in some community. Hearing that an oil slick was spotted within 10 miles of Pensacola was jarring, she said.

“We thought we were going to get lucky. But this is really bad,” Gray said. “We have the most beautiful beaches in the world. This is going to take years to clean up. When it hits here, we have nothing.”

That, of course, is the fear for many in the tourist industry ahead of the peak summer. And while Chamber of Commerce officials were reporting a few hundred hotel/vacation property reservation cancellations, the expectation is that the number may explode, leaving more than a few businesses in the red by summer's end.

Beachside, there was no evidence of the frantic efforts Wednesday to lay down secondary containment booms in Pensacola Bay and offshore. Kids frolicked in the sand and in the warm water. Parents kept watchful eyes on both their young ones and the books they clutched in their hands. Screams of joy rose from nearly every pocket of the beach. Yet, underneath it all, was an obvious pall.

One tourist from Utah expressed regret that he'd only just gotten to Florida, though would try to make the most of his vacation by spending as much time in the sea as he could before the oil sludge and tar balls float in.

A couple, believing they’d spotted plumes of oil dancing in the waters off Fort Pickens National Park nearby, were seemingly enthralled to be close to such a big international story with historical ramifications, though there has not been an official declaration of oil at that site. “It was so cool,” one of them said.

Acknowledging the comment as the pair sauntered away, Gray simply replied, “No, it's not cool.”

And with that, she cupped her camera in her hand and headed home, hoping she really hadn't just taken the final photos of her postcard-worthy hometown beach in all its clean and glistening glory.