With all the hoopla, panic and doom-and-gloom attitudes around here, my friend Gene and I went out to Pensacola Beach over the weekend to witness the destruction first-hand. Saturday wasn’t a great day; thunderstorms all around and not much sunshine. But Sunday was glorious! Lots of people there both days. Not so many tourists, although there were the usual out-of-state license plates of the stubborn who decided not to cancel, but mostly it was other locals with cameras traipsing around, seeing what was what, wanting to document How Bad It Is.
Only it isn’t. Well, not everywhere.
Yes, there are tar balls. Some places have them worse than others.
But there have always been tar balls on Pensacola Beach. Are there more now? Oh yeah. Were they easy to avoid on the sand? Yes. We did not see any big globs of oil on any of the sections of Pensacola Beach we visited. Nor was there any oil in the water or sheen on top of it – at least, not that we could detect. In fact, despite the inclement weather, there were swimmers swimming, surfers surfing and, in the more popular/crowded areas, a smattering of other people pretending it wasn't about to rain cats and dogs on us.
Further east in Navarre Beach, it was a different story. It was a lot worse.
Closeup view of the tarballs. They range in size from smaller than a dime to bigger than a silver dollar. They are quite nasty if they get on your skin.
The oil-spill containment booms that everybody is so keen on have absolutely zero effect on tarballs, because tarballs can be suspended in the water- they don’t always float on the surface. However, the tarballs only come up to the high-tide line, where they are deposited by the waves.
The beach itself is fine.
There are workers out, setting up their little canopies, armed with big plastic bags, collecting as much oil as they can. But I’ll tell you, it will be a tedious, never-ending job. These tarballs have only just begun arriving. And I cannot see these workers out there all summer and into the fall, scooping up tarballs like catpoop out of a litter box at $8/hour.
But never mind the tarballs. The bigger problem in the water at Pensacola Beach this weekend was the seaweed.
Pensacola is a paradox of a paradise. We are blessed with long stretches of fairly empty, sugar-white sand beaches and sparkling clear, warm water. It’s really quite pretty.
The downside is that in the summer we are often plagued with thick seaweed, numerous jellyfish, and swarms of gnats and biting green flies that have become immune to the strongest bug-juice and can make you run screaming like a little girl to your car. (Don’t ask me how I know this. Or if I’ve done it.) When all of them hit at the same time (it happens), the beach becomes unbearable.
In the past I’ve often been out on the beach, angrily gathering up my things – throwing in the beach towel, as it were, letting the green flies win. And I’d be thinking to myself that if I were a father from Louisiana or someplace far away who spent a lot of money to bring my wife and kids on vacation to this expensive, God-forsaken beach where you cannot swim in the water and cannot play on the sand, I would select a different place next year fo’ sho!.
So it's not as if Pensacola is a perfect place to begin with. For those of us who live here year 'round, just lying on the beach can often be a challenge. Tarballs are going to make that worse, but only incrementally.
Okay, so back to the oil, and the panic it’s creating. Here’s the deal: Mississippi Canyon 252 is a long way from Pensacola. If the Gulf of Mexico were perfectly calm like a lake, maybe the oil would stay intact long enough to leave a mess like the Exxon Valdez goop that everyone seems to be expecting. But the gulf is rarely “flat.” Wave action breaks up oil. Waves don’t make it disappear of course, but they break up the big slicks you might see in a harbor or on a river. The end result is that by the time the oil makes its way to distant Pensacola, Florida it is no longer a cohesive pool. It has been reduced to pancake-like globs and tarballs and dispersed over a large area. Sheens will mostly evaporate.
It may be…fingers crossed here…that this gulf coast “disaster” won’t be as bad as the pessimists are predicting and maybe secretly hoping for. Or it may be that it’ll be worse in some areas than others, depending on the winds and currents and local shape of the coastline. If people were expecting a big, black slick of crude oil to come floating ashore, they will most likely not see it. There is probably no worry of jumping into the Gulf of Mexico and coming up looking like oil-covered pelican.
The sugar-white sand is intact – so far. Like I’ve said, this is only the beginning. On Sunday, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen was on NBC’s “Meet The Press.” He said that the effects of this “catastrophe” might be felt well into the fall.
Let's hope that the effect are minimal. Let's hope that the beaches are no so horribly fouled as to be unusable. In other words, let's hope for the best.