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In the Panhandle, the 'Summer of Oil' seems endless

Every time Linda Young takes her dog out for a walk, morning or evening, she can smell it. Young, an environmental activist who lives near the beach in Navarre, next door to Pensacola Beach, said the odor of oil is now a constant part of her life.

If the wind is blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico, she said, "the oil smell is often very strong, too strong to be outside."

In ways big and small, the Deepwater Horizon disaster is reshaping the Gulf Coast. It's doing more than damaging the tourism and fishing industries; it's permeating the air people breathe and the way they think and feel, altering habits formed over a lifetime.

"This is impacting more lives than any hurricane does," said Jack Sanborn, who runs a canoe rental business in the Panhandle called Adventures Unlimited.

Some people are calling it the Summer of Oil, but the oil's impact will continue well beyond August, when a relief well being drilled by BP is supposed to shut down the undersea gusher at last. So much oil has spewed into the gulf that Florida officials say even if the relief well works, the spill is likely to keep tossing goop onto Florida beaches until at least October.

Some of the changes are easy to spot. On Pensacola's television station, the daily weather report now includes an oil forecast. Boats that in past years spent the summer zooming out into the gulf now sit in their marina storage slots, gathering dust. Beach hotels have dropped their rates and put out bouncy water slides, but still have lost more than half their reservations.

Some of the changes are more subtle.

Wedding photographers report a decline in brides planning barefoot beach nuptials. Moms who would normally take their toddlers and tweens to splash around in the gulf are taking them to public pools or the zoo. Buyers have walked away from closing on pricey homes at Perdido Key, saying they wanted to wait and see how bad the spill would be.

Betsy Booth expected to make $5,600 this month renting out her Pensacola Beach condo to tourists. But everyone canceled and "that went down the tube," she said.

She was able to recoup some of the money by renting the place at a lower rate to a Texas contractor working for BP on the cleanup.

"I was able to get a year lease," she said. "That tells you how long they believe they're going to be there."

Some of the damage has been emotional, with depression, anger and grief on the rise.

"When your entire way of life is built around seeing how the seasons change here, the things you do here, the things you eat, that's the reason you live here — and all of that is dying slowly right before your eyes. It's like checking an elderly relative into a rest home and knowing they're not going to come out," said James "Rip" Kirby III, a coastal geologist with the University of South Florida who is based in Fort Walton Beach.

Some of what has happened — the confusion over who's in charge, the problems with communication, the red tape involved in getting help — is sure to have political ramifications.

"The trust of the people in the institutions they've come to rely on, like the government and business, if it was damaged in the past, it's in a terminal phase now," said Kirby, who grew up in the Panhandle. "The public has absolutely no confidence in what's going on."

Anyone who insists on still going to the beach in Pensacola will find orange-topped warning signs about touching the oil that has washed ashore or swimming in water with a visible sheen.

Even building sand castles is a hazardous activity now, because oil has been found as deep as a foot below a clean-looking surface. Children scooping out moats around their sandy turrets have discovered what looks like lumps of brown Play-Doh.

Despite the warning signs, as of this week 27 people have reported they've become ill after coming in contact with oil at Pensacola Beach, according to the Escambia County Health Department. They were nauseous, coughing, short of breath, their skin was irritated — not the kind of beach visit memories the Chamber of Commerce would encourage.

For decades the Panhandle's beaches have been famous for their white sand, the polished quartz crystals sparkling brightly under the blazing sun. Now, for the first time in history, Escambia and Santa Rosa County officials have set up dozens of portable cleaning stations near the dune crossovers so any tourists who step in the oil can wash it off.

But it's not enough. After the visitors drive off, there are always strips of scraped-off residue on the parking lot, like a series of shadows paralleling all the white lines.

The shape of the beach itself is being altered every time cleanup crews show up to scoop up oil-tainted sand. In Escambia County, about 400 cleanup workers spent the last Sunday in June picking up 88,000 pounds of tar balls and stringy mousse spread across the beach. Then the tide came in and they had to go back and clean the beach again. And then again.

The ripples from the disaster have spread far inland. Gas stations and convenience stores in rural Gadsden County, near Tallahassee, have long counted on tourists from Atlanta stopping by on their way down to the Panhandle beaches. This summer, the road through Gadsden County is quiet.

In other parts of the Panhandle, though, traffic has picked up considerably. At Adventures Unlimited, next to Pensacola in Santa Rosa County, Jack Sanborn said his canoe and inner-tube rental business is booming.

Sanborn said that while out-of-town vacationers have canceled their plans, locals who would normally be surf-fishing or splashing in the gulf are instead exploring the Blackwater River and Coldwater Creek. The past three weekends, he has been booked solid.

"There's a tremendous need for spiritual and emotional healing that comes from going outdoors," he said. "But these folks, if they go to the beach now, they get depressed. So they come to our rivers and get some of that fulfillment they need."

Times staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report.

In the Panhandle, the 'Summer of Oil' seems endless 07/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 10, 2010 9:24pm]
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