As a native and lifelong resident of North Florida, I love the Gulf of Mexico. Thanks to my mother and her love of the water (from the shore) and my father and his love of the outdoors and fishing (in the water), our family of four children spent many weekends and summers along Florida's panhandle beaches.We skipped the touristy areas and went straight to the natural settings and state parks.
From Destin (before it was such a popular destination) and Panama City (St. Andrew State Park), to Mexico Beach and Cape San Blas (St. Joseph State Park), to St. George Island and Carabelle, to Wilson Beach (now-deserted cottages) and Alligator Point (when there was still a sandy beach and you could see your feet under water).
Mom would watch us kids and Dad would either fish in the surf or he would (and I'm not even kidding) take his green canoe, the Kelpie, out into the bay. (He took it into the surf once, too, and it capsized – anything for a fish or two!) But I digress ...
All I have to do is see the Gulf of Mexico and I'm at peace. I also love to hear it, fish in it, swim, stand and float in it, sun on its beaches, and eat shrimp, crab and fish from its waters. When we drive to the beach, I immediately know we're approaching water because I can smell that beach air. I love walking through fine, warm, white sand.
After my younger son turned 6 in late March, I marked several summer dates so the boys and I could go to the beach and hang out for the day when Joaquin was working. We couldn't wait -- digging in the sand, dodging waves, boogie-boarding, staying late enough to see the sun set and then driving home, the boys dozing in the back seat, sleepy and worn out from the sun and saltwater.
The photo (on the left) of the boys has been my phone-screen background since I took it over a year ago. I took it during our rainy but completely wonderful 2009 Memorial Day weekend getaway on Panama City Beach. Who knew then that the least of our worries this summer would be riptides?
I've grown up in the same town where I was born and I accepted a long time ago that even though I'm still here, I can never go back to many childhood hangouts ... I miss my mother's and my favorite store to shop for clothes, Rheinauer's. I can't go to the Ice Cream Palace at the Northwood Mall with my friend Jeanette and order the biggest banana split on the menu. My friend Lora and I can't wander the woods and meadows in our neighborhood "cow pasture." My brother Bob and I can't run the basement halls in the old Capital Press Corps offices, or grab a snack with my Dad at the snack bar -- the "Stand 'n Barf," as he called it.
Those places are gone. They have been either torn down or rebuilt into something else. I expected that to happen eventually. Stores, buildings and vacant land go through developments and redevelopments.
But the Gulf of Mexico is supposed to last forever.
The oil disaster breaks my heart. And every day, it just gets worse. Today, oil and tar balls were seen in Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana.
I wish I could tell you I've been out there skimming the Gulf waters for tar balls, building habitats for the sea life on the run. I wish I could say that even though I wouldn't go in the water, I'm still going to the coast and enjoying the sand and spending money in our coastal towns. But if I said those things, I’d be lying.
I won’t take my kids to the beach. I won't let them swim in it. (I explain it to friends like this: "If someone pooped in the deep end of your pool, would you still swim in the shallow end?") I especially don’t want to risk exposing my younger one to air pollutants. His lungs already behave like those of a much-older person, thanks to asthma and a congenital heart defect, scimitar syndrome.
I haven’t turned my back on the Gulf of Mexico, yet I feel like a traitor, a fair-weather friend, an unreliable parent, a pitiful ally. The Gulf has always been there when I wanted to spend time with it. Now it needs me and all I can do is pray.
I know the water still looks beautiful in many places, but the fact is, there's oil in the water, even in places where you might not actually see it. Even worse, perhaps, there are toxic dispersants in the waters. Sea life is moving toward shallow waters because their deeper-water habitats are polluted. Wildlife and sea life are coated in oil. I can't even bring myself to eat anything from the Gulf; I know tourism and state agencies keep deeming Florida's seafood safe, but I'm not taking chances.
I’ve never missed a place so much. I’ve never felt so much hate for a corporation as I feel toward BP. I don’t worry as much as about the economic havoc as I do the earthly devastation. I don’t worry as much as about today’s human inhabitants as I do future populations – populations that include my boys and their families, and likely, their families.
I am grateful to those who are out there skimming water for tar balls and oil, bathing, cleaning and releasing our poisoned wildlife, tracking and studying migratory birds (some of which are endangered species).
I pray every day that our Gulf of Mexico will somehow, some way, some day, miraculously pull through. If I can’t take my children to the beach, I at least want to take my grandchildren and great-grandchildren there, and tell them about the days when the Gulf was flooded with oil ... and how it recovered.
Learn more: http://emergency.cdc.gov/gulfoilspill2010/.