PENSACOLA BEACH — Nerves are wearing thin along the Florida Panhandle as heavier concentrations of oil invaded once sugar sand beaches last week and dashed the hopes that Florida would somehow escape the ravages of the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
Residents who had clung to belief that some miracle would protect the tourist dependent region and state were brought low early in the week as mats of weathered oil blanketed portions of Florida northwest beaches. Suddenly, tar balls were no longer news.
Clean-up crews quickly dispatched the oily debris and favorable winds and currents pushed the bulk of oil off Florida’s shores, but the psychological damage had already been inflicted.
“Until this past week, there was a sense that maybe, just maybe we’d be spared,” said Meg Peltier (no relation to the writer), president and CEO of the Gulf Breeze Chamber of Commerce. “But when it came ashore, well, that changed things.”
Business isn’t horrible for many of the hotels that house the summer visitors drawn to the region’s beaches, but the frenetic pace that usually begins Memorial Day weekend and continues through August is noticeably absent.
More immediately impacted are the area’s charter boat operators and commercial fishermen, whose livelihoods have been idled by the oil spewing from a severed pipe a mile deep and more than 100 miles away.
Farther inland, where many of the workers who clean the rooms, pump the gas and wait the tables this time of year reside, food stamp applications are up nearly 20 percent in the past 60 days.
Unemployment is also up, surpassing a statewide rate of nearly 12 percent. State social services officials are talking about increases in domestic abuse, child neglect and the other social maladies that come when money is tight and the future unclear.
To vent some of that frustration, thousands of people around the world gathered Saturday to hold hands in solidarity. In Florida, Hands Across the Sands brought concerned Florida residents and tourists to beaches from Key West to Pensacola Beach to commiserate and voice their sadness and anger.
“It a sick feeling,” said Cindy Nevens, a Navarre Beach resident. “There is no end in sight and we don’t know if it can be stopped or if they are telling us the truth about how much oil they are collecting.”
Going forward, local business leaders area hyping the appearance next week in Gulf Breeze of a psychologist who treated patients in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. He is speaking on how to handle the post-traumatic stress like that which descended on Alaska residents a few months after the Valdez spill.
E-mail Michael Peltier at email@example.com.