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Paradise

A pristine nursery on the Florida coast awaits the plumes of oil headed in its direction. Jim Gabour reports, waits and fears.
Jim Gabour
8 June 2010

This missive is going to ruin the quiet worth of my downtime, but I figure a report is required of me. What I am seeing needs to be communicated. I need to let someone further up the political food-chain know of one more effect of this spill: the imminent deterioration of a communal life, seaside.

 The fact that I am attempting to do so on a blackberry - there is no internet service here and only one bar of connectivity - is undoubtedly indicative of my own state of mind.

 I am on a solo retreat at a long-time friend's house in Inlet Beach, a tiny unorganised conglomeration of older frame-houses at the terminus of an oyster-shell dead-end road on the Florida panhandle.

 A mile west the ultra-elite residential development of Rosemary Beach has laid out a gem-like grid of a hundred or more million-dollar mansions. The upscale residents have their own town-centre with a post-office, coffeshops and a Tuscan restaurant. Not much can penetrate the luxury barrier.

 Two miles east of where I sit thumb-writing - across the namesake inlet - the faded decadence of Panama City Beach rolls on for miles: single-story concrete-block camps from the 1950s still holding their own amidst elaborately-detailed condo skyscrapers, the taller buildings adorned with the same oceanic motifs that grace the older homes' roadside mailboxes. Only the mailboxes' ornamentation of fishes and seashells is executed in plastic stickers bought cheaply in quantity from Alvin's Tropical Discount Stores.

 It is a very quiet, calming place, especially midweek, when there are few tourists and most of the locals are at work. That is why I have been coming here for two decades, to rejuvenate. To get healed by the sound and salty caress of a clear and forgiving Gulf of Mexico.

 But now oceanwards, to the southeast, multi-mile-long plumes of oil are headed directly here, with the prevailing winds blowing southeasterly for the last several days. Already tarballs have shown up at Pensacola, an hour west of here; and on 5 June, at Navarre beach, just the other side of Fort Walton and Destin, only thirty miles distant. The first washed onshore on 4 June.

 Here, down the Inlet sands, orange warning-tape circles yard-wide areas in the upper beach where endangered turtles - Kemp's ridley, Hawksbill, Loggerhead, and the larger Leatherback and Green turtles -  come ashore at night, each female burying dozens of large eggs, and then abandoning them, swimming back out to sea. The orange tape is put in place around new nests each morning by volunteers and state wildlife workers, to keep the coming unprotected hatchlings from being disturbed by humans.

 The sugar sand-dunes which shield the beaches have been restored from hurricane damage this past year with large new rows of sea oats, the one plant that seems able to keep the massive dunes in place, even in the face of Mother Nature's fiercest storms.

 But the storm that is approaching does not play by natural rules. With the high surf already being generated by offshore electrical squalls, BP's addition to this pristine nursery of flora and fauna will be delivered high onto land in larger packets than anyone resident here wishes to imagine.

They know it is coming.

So do Those in Charge, though their minions refuse to even admit who they work for.

Yesterday, groups of high-school-age kids showed up, marching down the beach with adult supervisors on dune-buggies, being very tight-lipped about what they are doing or have found. It was obvious that they were looking for oil, but to a person they refused to admit that; say whether or not they had found any; or even admit who they were working for. Their adult supervisor scowled at anyone approaching his group.

They disappeared to the east, refusing conversation. They did not seem excited or happy to be doing their job.

Looking down this morning, it is easy to see that the sand is still pristine, except for the occasional cigarette-butt washing back ashore. There is still algae in the very active surf, stirred up by those ongoing storms just offshore, and the warning-flag shows the same prevailing southeasterly wind, driving the sea right at us.

"Normal" people here seem at times almost psychotic with fear of what is coming, driven by both media and government reports. A charter-boat captain, on the beach yesterday with his wife and two small children, said he was trying to bring his family to the beach every day this week, so they would "remember it like it was".

Already talking in the past tense about paradise.

All this said, I too am going to water's edge now, to burn in my own memory the beauty this globe of water affords, and the ugliness that trails in the wake of humans who exploit it.

This is, in the end, unbelievable.

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