Many residents of this subtropical playground waited in fear and anger today for the arrival of the oily globs and slime spawned by a runaway well that blew out two months ago 500 miles to the south in Mexican coastal waters.
The fear was generated in people like Ila Loetscher, a longtime resident, by visions of defiled beaches and destroyed wildlife.
The anger flared in people like South Padre Mayor Glenn McGehee because of news reports that South Padre and adjacent communities have already suffered substantial damage from the oil spill, the world's largest.
So far, the Mexican well has dumped more than 55 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, surpassing in outflow the 50-million-gallon spill resulting from the wreck of the tanker Amoco Cadiz off the coast of France last year.
McGehee and others contended that the reports by news services and the television networks set off an unwarranted scare at the height of the area's tourist season.
South Padre Island, with a year-round population of 590, annually contributes between $30 million and $40 million to the Texas economy, most of it from tourism.
Both the fear and the anger were justified.
South Padre and other towns along the Texas Gulf Coast are still thought to be in danger from the oily emulsions spewing steadly from the Ixtoc I well in the bay of Campeche. The well has been out of control since June 3. But there was little evidence today that oil in any of the various possible forms had made a landfall here.
Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency officials said today that the Texas coastline stands a good chance of escaping significant damage from the oil well blowout.
"What we have are multiple patches of oily substances, in different forms, stretching over some 400 miles or so in the Gulf," said Petty Officer Joseph L. Gibson, a spokesman for the Coast Guard's emergency water pollution monitoring project here.
"There is no leading edge of a massive oil slick threatening the coastline. And, so far, there have been no substantial deposits of oily substances on U.S. beaches," Gibson said.
There has been sightings of tar balls, small globs of black petroleum goo, at various spots along the South Padre beaches. And, says the Coast Guard, some oily deposits have been found along beaches bordering the mouth of the Rio Grande about seven miles south of here. Other deposits have been found about 30 miles to the north, on the north and south beaches of the Port Mansfield ship channel.
However, every official connected with the water pollution monitoring program said today that the depositts found here, especially the tar balls, can be found on area beaches throughout the year.
Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Richard S. Griggs said the tar balls usually come from natural crude oil seepages in the gulf and from ocean-going vessels discharging ballast.
"We may never be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the tar balls found here today are the products of the Mexican oil blowout," he said.
In keeping with that skeptical note, the official Coast Guard line today was that the tar balls found at the Port Mansfield beaches and at the mouth of the Rio Grande would be considered Ixtoc products "for operational purposes only." Teams of scientists are studying the residue to see if it came from the disabled wells, the Coast Guard said.
Other officials said that the prevailing southern current along the Texas Gulf Coast may work with the Mexican gulf tides north of the current to push the disconnected petroleum globs and film away from the U.S. shore. But they said they are taking no chances.
Oil slick booms have been deployed to keep petroleum wastes out of environmentally sensitive inland waterways such as the neighboring Laguna Madre, an important bird and marine life breeding habitat. Coast Guard surveillance flights continued today as far as 45 miles south of the Mexican border.
Working from the decks of the Longhorn, a research vessel owned by the University of Texas, divers and scientists struggled to find methods of dealing with submerged globs of oily material, floating about 40 feet below the gulf.
Because of their depth, the submerged petroleum deposits can elude the booms and traditional oil barriers that extend only 32 inches below the water's surface. There was no clear reading today on what threat, if any, the submarine globs pose to the Texas coast.