The last night of the trip, we spent a couple of hours on the beach at Pensacola. The beachfront was decimated in 2007 by Hurricane Ivan, and almost every human-built structure was completely destroyed. NOAA records indicate that the storm surge was 12.5 feet on Pensacola Beach, but the locals claim that it was much higher at times. However, the entire beach area has been completely rebuilt, and there are restaurants, stores, a pavilion for special events, and plenty of tourist attractions. This was the fourth trip I’ve made to the beach, and the third since the hurricane, and the progress of reconstruction has been exciting.
We arrived on the beach near sunset, expecting to find the regular raucous crowd of tourists and kids, but found it as empty as the year after Ivan. A sign in front of a condo rental agency explained, “There is no oil on our beaches except Coppertone.” Pensacola is in the crosshairs of the BP oil spill, and even though there is no oil on the beach yet, hundreds of vacationers have cancelled their trips. Radio stations throughout the Gulf Coast exhort their listeners to spread the word that the beaches are still clean and beautiful, but apparently to little effect. The cheap hotels (the type frequented by college students on field trips) are full around Mobile and Pensacola, but not with the usual contingent of families and college kids. Instead, there are people funneling in to deal with the oil.
I walked out onto the fishing pier with a couple of students to watch the Least Terns hunting in the shallow waters there. The birds are tiny compared to other terns and gulls. They sail over the waves, using their excellent vision to find little fishes near the surface, then fold their wings and dive into the water, much like a pelican. They crash-land into the sea and emerge about one time in ten with a silver prize. The successful terns take off for the shore with their fish, cackling a victory cry past the morsel in their bill, while those who haven’t been as lucky immediately bounce twenty or thirty feet into the air to try again. The crashing and bouncing happen quickly and make the terns appear mounted on strings. The number of Least Terns at Pensacola was the greatest I’ve seen there, but the birds are one of the success stories of the Endangered Species Act, and the populations are starting to flourish all along the Gulf. Wildlife managers identified important nesting areas for the birds—almost always on pristine stretches of beach—and posted fences and signs warning beach users to stay clear. Amazingly, this worked. People in the Gulf care about wildlife, or at least about the tourist dollars that the wildlife brings in, and do what they need to do to protect it.
The next morning in the hotel room, I watched an interview on one of the morning news shows. The subject of the interview was a fishing charter captain who was also the father of two other fishing boat captains. He choked back tears as he described his conversations with his sons—what would they do for customers this year? What would they do for a living? The waitress at the fish house the night before had chuckled nervously when she told one of the students that the dressing on his salad would be made of the “good kind of oil.” We noticed several times this graffito: “FUBP.” Sometimes it wasn’t written on a BP store or billboard. For the most part, though, the people in Pensacola were like those we had encountered throughout Florida—cheerful and positive, and very, very nervous.
Many years ago, I read the Nevil Shute novel On the Beach. The plot was that a nuclear war had destroyed all life in the Northern Hemisphere, and that weather currents were slowly moving the fallout south to Australia. The people in Australia were waiting for the end with a fantastic feeling of foreboding and resignation—knowing that the end was coming and that there was nothing to be done about it.
That’s what it feels like in Pensacola.