The red warning flags in the Perdido Key State Park beach parking lot in Pensacola were flapping so hard it sounded like they were trying to take flight. I stepped out of my car and the wind blasted me with spray. I inhaled sharply, savoring the salty tang. It smelled clean.
A big storm out in the Gulf of Mexico was driving huge, dark waves onto the beach, crashing them into the sand and creating dangerous rip currents—hence the warning flags. I figured on a day like this I would have this beach all to myself.
I was wrong.
At the end of the boardwalk stood two middle-aged women, dressed for a day at the office. They were leaning against the wooden railing with their arms crossed, talking quietly and looking out at the beach, dotted here and there with a blueish bubble of a Portuguese man-of-war washed ashore by the storm.
They told me their names and that they had both lived in Pensacola for more than 30 years. I asked what they were doing out here on such a blustery day, but I knew what their answer would be as soon as the words left my mouth.
“We wanted to take one last look at it,” Candy Mosko said. “It’s such a gift, to have it here. And now to think it could be gone…”
The two women said they used to visit the beach a lot when they first moved to Pensacola —not the crowded, hectic Pensacola Beach, home to lots of spring break bars and T-shirt shops, but this 247-acre slice of sugar-white sand, the westernmost state park in Florida, where the only structures are a few picnic pavilions. It’s a popular place for swimming and surf-fishing.
Over the years, the ladies said, their visits had tapered off. Still, they enjoyed knowing the beach was there. They had assumed it would remain the same forever.
And now, maybe, it wouldn’t.
Just a week before, the BP rig blew up 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana; and now it was gushing more than 200,000 gallons of oil a day into the Gulf. An oil slick was bearing down on the Florida coast. That’s why I was back in my hometown, writing about all the fear and anger bubbling up across the Panhandle.
“I never thought I’d see this day,” said Capt. J.R. Hinojosa, who runs the Blue Marlin Water Taxi on Pensacola Beach. He shook his head. “I would have thought that there were better safety measures on the rigs.”
Hinojosa was one of about 40 people who showed up at the hulking Pensacola Civic Center on a Sunday afternoon to take a four-hour course in how to clean up any oil that washes onto the beach. The work, warned teacher Steve Fruchtman of Beck Disaster Recovery, would require protective suits covering the volunteers from head to toe, even when the temperature topped 90 degrees. Fruchtman said he would teach the volunteers how to deal with “potential exposure to hazardous substances.” He warned that even the air at the beach could become toxic. “If anything happens where a supervisor determines conditions have changed and it’s unsafe, they’re going to ask you to leave,” he said.
The toxic nature of the spill worried everyone, and no one could really answer their questions about it. A community meeting in Pensacola Beach drew some 400 people, including college professor Richard Sjolander, who pointed out that hurricane season is less than a month away.
When Hurricane Ivan made landfall in 2004, it swept waves across the top of the fishing pier and into streets and houses, he reminded everyone. If some similar storm crosses the Gulf next month, it might push the oil ahead of it into those same areas.
Since the oil is considered toxic, Sjolander asked, “Will it require demolition of everything on the beach?”
Ironies gushed out like the oil. It turned out that, at the time of the explosion, BP executives had been visiting the rig, celebrating its safety record. And after the accident, the U.S. Minerals Management Service announced it was postponing its annual oil industry safety awards ceremony.
In the wake of the spill, all the politicians who had been claiming drilling was safe were suddenly backpedaling. Meanwhile, pundit Rush Limbaugh, a Palm Beach County resident, questioned whether tree-hugging terrorists had set off the blast at the rig for Earth Day. He also declared that nature would clean up the Gulf just the way it had cleaned up Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. The only problem: Scientists say there’s still oil polluting Prince William Sound 21 years later.
All along the Florida coast, all eyes were on that spreading stain on the Gulf, and efforts, so far futile, by BP to stop it. Although BP was paying to put out thousands of feet of booms to protect the coast, the only boom I saw on Perdido Key was one that had broken loose and was floating in the surf behind the Flora-Bama Lounge, famous for its annual Mullet Toss.
As I learned while growing up there, Pensacola is a city built on making the best of a bad situation. It touts its sun-drenched beaches even though it gets more annual rainfall than Seattle. For years the mayor bragged about the comparatively small population, proclaiming that Pensacola is the place “where thousands live the way millions wish they could.”
Everybody figured the worst thing that could ever happen was Hurricane Ivan, which flattened the city six years ago. But they had bounced back from that—only to face this new threat.
Everyone I talked to around Pensacola feared this was the end, the oilpocalypse, the catastrophe that would at last drive away the tourists, kill the seafood business and deliver the coup de grace to an already ailing real estate industry.
“First we had the hurricane, and then the economy tanked, and now this oil spill,” longtime seafood dealer Larry Nix told me while his son fixed me a shrimp po-boy. “If it hits us, there ain’t gonna be enough people left here to start a fight.”
The thing is, Pensacola is not alone. Most of the coast is in the same boat, dependent on the clean beaches and azure waters to keep the economy afloat. And like the ladies at Perdido Key, everyone has taken it for granted that the beach would always stay the same. But it won’t. No matter where the oil comes ashore in Florida, it is likely to wreak havoc on us all.
So I thanked the ladies on the beach and walked out onto the sand a ways, to where the sandpipers were scurrying along the edge of the surging waves. I reached down and picked up a small shell and tucked it in my pocket—a memento for my kids of the way things used to look, back when the beach was clean.
A version of this story appeared in the St. Petersburg Times. In 2006, Craig Pittman, who covers environmental issues for the Times, won the top award for in-depth reporting from the Florida Magazine Association for a story he wrote for Sarasota Magazine about offshore drilling. He’s also the author of the book Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida’s Most Famous Endangered Species.