A Quiet Storm – My Visit to the Gulf Oil Spill

"Big Daddy" - Pensacola, FL

By Jason Hoyt & Patricia Sullivan

On Tuesday, June 29th, 2010, I was invited on a trip that will be forever etched in my memory.  I accompanied Patricia Sullivan, Mickey Spencer and Allen Wilson to visit fellow patriots in Navarre, FL to see first hand how their communities are affected by the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil Spill. 

Upon arrival, we drove to several beaches from Navarre to Pensacola Beach, randomly talking with those attempting to enjoy a vacation, to citizens visiting the beach to check on the oil’s progress, as well as local officials, business owners and even the Department of Environmental Protection as they took samples of the ocean to test for toxins (we’ll have to wait 10 days for the results, however).

That evening, we attended a town meeting and took dubious notes of their frustrations. 

The post below is an account of our trip as written by Patricia Sullivan.

A Perfect Storm
By Patricia Sullivan 

Almost 70 days into the “Gulf Oil Disaster” the only effect I had felt from my home in Central Florida was a sense that I was missing something. The news was consumed with reports from Louisiana, Washington D.C., and a mile under water in the Gulf of Mexico. News stories of the human side of the tragedy were filtered by the press and little was sifting through online.

Hoping to get a true picture, our trip was without fanfare. Early on the morning of June 29th I set off for the Florida panhandle with a few like minded individuals hoping to fill in the blanks of this unprecedented event. As we headed North to meet a patriot friend in Navarre, we speculated on what we might find. Nothing could have prepared us for the reality of the day ahead. 

OIL-1It was important to me to experience the emotion of those directly affected. Only by seeing with my own eyes and hearing with my own ears could I glimpse the true measure of what was taking place in a small village out of the national spotlight. On the white sandy beaches, once pristine and inviting, we found a mine field of toxic sludge. Not a barrier that shouted “Stay Away”, but a speckled strip of nickel, dime and saucer sized splotches which snared the unwary. Where shoes were optional, they were now required. Where once my friend Debbie could stroll carefree searching for shells, she carefully guided each footfall and warned visitors of the potential dangers.

Over the course of the next several hours we encountered people of wide diversity. A German couple traveling through this great country had stopped to take in the beauty and were trying to remove the tar from their bare feet. Another couple from Arizona, there to find a home so they could be near their son who would be stationed nearby in the armed forces. There was the mother of two young boys, from Indiana, that had a vacation home on the beach with her husband, devastated by the loss of the idealistic oasis they had found just one year earlier.

OIL-2Nearly two hours and a lot of emotion had passed since we first arrived in Navarre, and now we found ourselves standing on Pensacola Beach. I had flashbacks of the Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong…” Let me paint the picture for you. Scores of workers in hazmats suits were raking and sifting sand. Others were shoveling tar balls into thick clear plastic bags, then sealing them with duct tape. Still more were loading these bags onto one of the many yellow front end loaders, to be dumped into the trailers waiting to rush the bags to landfills. In the midst of this machinery and people in rubber boots and gloves was a little boy carrying his sand bucket in one hand, and with the other he was pulling his boogie board behind him. He was bound for the surf which he would eventually enter. The beaches were open. It did not even occur to him that something might be in the water, something that might hurt him. The red flags were up because a rip current was present and the people that should protect him had given him a sign. There were no signs telling him the brown sticky stuff was bad and could make him sick. In the bigger picture, what didn’t belong were the out of town, bussed in laborers who were clothed head to toe in safety gear, removing tar balls from one of the many, once pristine beaches.

Big Daddy recognized it too, sitting in his chair, beverage in hand, watching. Someone in our group asked him how he felt about all this. “I’m sad,” was Big Daddy’s reply. He had been coming to Pensacola Beach since 1946 and lived just down the road. He raised his kids there, his grandkids too. He said he and his wife had been through a lot over the years, but this was the end of the food chain. Pointing to the pier, he shared how the barnacles were dead, the fish are gone. After crabbing for three days, he’d caught five, before the oil spill he would have caught at least 100.

OIL-3I asked Big Daddy “What would you do if you were in charge?” It’s one of my favorite questions. The answers are often practical, unpresumptuous, and revealing . “First I’d plug the well!” he said. Rhetorically he asked “Why is it Exxon had three safety violations and BP gets away with over 700?” Answering his own question he charged corrupt politicians for looking out for their own interests. He had no hope for any change in a very bleak looking future. Big Daddy’s raw emotion stabbed me. Staying behind, I sat down next to Big Daddy, and the two of us had a long talk, sprinkled with a few tears.

Who is looking out for Big Daddy’s future and for the residents of the Gulf Coast? Who is talking to the small communities that present too many logistical challenges for photo ops and cleverly crafted sound bites? Where is the leadership? When are the solutions coming? Where is the information that could perhaps lift a portion of this foreboding from their shoulders. On day 71 of the oil spill, tar was now hitting their beaches, and 71 more days worth of oil was to follow. Make that 72 today. Will the hole be plugged tomorrow?

One of our group, a veteran of many disasters natural and manmade, had been troubled all day. “I sense something here,” he had remarked on several occasions. “I’m seeing something that is familiar, but I can’t quite place it.” Later that evening he jerked bolt upright with a sudden realization that reached him to his very core. “It’s the stare. It’s the two thousand yard stare.”

OIL-6The “two thousand yard stare,” a phrase originally coined to describe the limp, unfocused gaze of a battle-weary soldier. It was that stare that had been on the face of the tourists and the locals, the old gulfers and the young surfers. A stare that gazes, empty beyond the horizon, searching for the solution, the end, with an empty realization that there wasn’t one. I was a little shaken by his revelation. I could see in his eyes that he had known the pain of the soul behind those stares.

There is no substitute for first hand experience, ground truth as some would say. There are many more stories to share, and I will share them. I was glad to hear today, while we were making the seven hour journey home, that our President is finally going to allow other nations to help with the clean up. At least a few of them will be allowed to do for us that which we have done for so many. The people of Navarre have offered to help and have so far been turned away, but they will not be denied the right to participate in shaping their own future. There is a storm coming and it isn’t named Alex. It is the will of the people, the Debbies and Big Daddy’s. It is forged steel, strength of will in the heart of every patriot in this great nation. It is the voice of the “every man”. And, it is the reason I must continue to seek out their wisdom and their will so that I can earn the privilege of being their voice.


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