August 12th – 3:32PM(EST)
Larchmont, NY – Traveling back to Western Florida last week, we were optimistic that the effects of the spill were dissipating quickly in the area. Over a month had passed since we we there last and it was clear that much had changed. Speaking with residents of Destin, we found that the fears and anxiety that consumed the community were largely calmed. Most importantly for the town, tourists were coming to their beaches (albeit still in lesser numbers than previous years). With the national media’s attention off of Destin and the surrounding area, much of the associated negativity left, too. What I found to be of particular interest, however, was the complete 180 done in the minds of Destin residents. A month ago, we heard people in fear for their jobs, their community, their family and friends. These fears were not unwarranted; oil sheen and tar balls did reach Destin and the surrounding area (though, relatively, they’ve been spared), Gulf and tourism-based businesses have had their worst summer in years, and entire communities have seen their stress levels jump through the roof. The uncertainty was undoubtedly the greatest source of fear as towns like Destin sat watching CNN and the NOAA forecasts, helplessly hoping that the fate of their shores would not be like that of Louisiana’s. Today, these people speak of their disdain for the media, suggesting that they brought with them a negative stigma and hurt tourism.
“Why are you guys back here?”, asked our waitress at the marina restaurant in Destin. She told us how BP had drastically cut down the local VOO work force and that things were returning to normal. Like other business owners and resident we spoke with, she blamed the media for blowing things out of proportion in Florida. The same people that were consumed by anxiety only a few weeks ago are now calm and collected, reassured by the recent federal reports and media reporting. Boom no longer lines their shores and reports of oil at sea continue to diminish; it is easy to understand how, after months of uncertainty, communities like this are ready and eager for good news. That good news is that towns like Destin were largely spared from major shoreline oil impact, but others, like Pensacola, were not. And so the beaches remain beautiful and they remain as a retreat for so many in the Gulf. But while oil didn’t cover Destin beaches, or stain them black. The town and area were not wholly. Rather, the answer lies somewhere in between.
Oil from the Deepwater Horizon did reach this region, just take a look at Pensacola in June (only about 45 miles west Destin). And yet, these communities stuck together during the hard times and have remained strong thanks to their unity. Ready for it all to be over, they’ve now accepted the message that it is. As inconvenient as it may be, it’s not quite over, even in places like Destin where claims need to be paid and further water testing ought to be done. We revisited Pensacola, where we did some filming in the end of June, when its beaches were being hit hard. Perching myself on the same pier overlooking “Casino Beach”, I was amazed at what I saw. The thick patches of oil that seeped deep into the white sand were now cleaned or covered. Families and children replaced the cleanup workers of June and the skimming boats and spotting helicopters were long gone. On one hand, it was inspiring to see such speedy rejuvenation but I couldn’t stop thinking, is it really all gone? Are the beaches really safe to swim and play in? Is the water safe for fish and other marine life? Will the toxins that flowed hundreds of miles to the Florida panhandle continue to do so, will they flow elsewhere, will they linger and have long term effects? These questions can’t be answered yet but they do need to be asked. It’s very easy to sweep dirt under the couch, but that dirt will always remain…
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