PENSACOLA — The red warning flags in the beach parking lot 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 big, dark waves up 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 at Perdido Key State Park 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 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, and suddenly all the politicians who had been claiming drilling was safe were backpedaling. BP was paying to put out thousands of feet of booms to protect the coast, but 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.
Pensacola, my hometown, 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 thing 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 with all of us.
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.
Craig Pittman covers Florida environmental issues for the Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8530.