Keeping Key West an Island Paradise

Updated at 5:33 p.m. EDT, June 22, 2010

When you live in the Florida Keys, it's hard to be anything but blissful, reports CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman. Oh sure, sometimes you get too much ice in your margarita - or put too much slice on your five wood - but residents typically take such setbacks in stride. Slow to anger and quick to go fishing, as a people, they are placid as the water. But now there's a call for the laid-back to stand up.

A few weeks ago Dan Robey started recruiting volunteers for if and when the oil ever reaches here.

Four thousand people have signed up.

"We are now the largest volunteer organization in the Florida Keys," Robey said.

It's a devoted army, too.

After asking Dan to assemble a small, little group, maybe four or five people, word got out on the island and a huge crowd showed up. Hundreds of retirees, boat captains and drag queens showed up to tell me why the Keys will not go quietly.

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"It is a special place. There's no place like it in the United States," said one woman.

"We know we are the stewards and we know we have an obligation to take care of our planet," said another woman.

Florida Keys Environmental Coalition
Florida Keys Environmental Coalition on Facebook

To that end, people here are taking Hazmat classes at their own expense - about a $100 a person. Others are learning how to clean the delicate mangrove trees, while still others plan to man boats and booms to protect their coral reef - the fourth largest in the world.

"It's all hands on deck," said Ed Russo, the vice chairman of the group and a one-time finalist in the Hemmingway look-a-like competition.

Russo said people here are willing to work with authorities, but not afraid to work without them either.

"It's like when a hurricane comes here," Russo said. "We can't wait for the government to come down and help us. We have to help ourselves. It's just part of the culture."

People down here have always been an independent, sometimes insubordinate, bunch. Back in the early '80s they threatened to secede from the union and form their own nation called the Conch Republic. And that was just over a highway issue. So you can imagine how fired up they are over this. They booed when Hartman suggested waiting for BP and the federal government.

"We got the backbone to do it in this town," said a resident.

Of course, hopefully it'll never come to that and the oil will stay out to sea. But if it does come here, residents say rest assured.

"We're never going to allow the Florida Keys to get polluted," Russo said. "It's just not going to happen."

Just try and stop them.

"We've seceded once and we can do it again," Russo said. "We're very good at it."

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  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.

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