Rebecca Baltz keeps a watchful eye on her daughter as she plows her fingers through the sand at the water’s edge. “Don’t dig too deep,” she cautions 3-year-old Emma. Across town, in the business district where business is not so hot, Jeff Elbert worries whether cash register receipts will ever increase.
“There have been a lot of sleepless nights,” said Elbert, whose family has owned a souvenir shop for more than 30 years and who has seen his revenue drop by 30 percent. “It’s certainly a scary situation.”
On the surface, the businesses and the beaches look just fine.
But if you dig a little deeper, you find that’s not the case. Pensacola Beach’s sugar-white sands used to be famous for all the right reasons — they were pristine and lured vacationers from all over the world.
But in June, a few weeks after the Deepwater Horizon well blew out and started spewing 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, they became famous for all the wrong reasons.
First, tar balls started washing up. Then, the national media descended upon the area. Finally, giant mats of oil washed ashore, forcing state officials to close Pensacola Beach.
On some parts of the beach, children these days dig in the sand and build sand castles, just as they have for decades. On other parts of the beach, workers labor on their hands and knees using their own rakes, shovels and sifters.
Nearly six months after the well gave way, triggering the biggest gusher in U.S. history, the stain and the taint remain.
Elbert’s mother was an artist who began hand-painting sand dollars three decades ago in the family’s souvenir store on Pensacola Beach.
Now he sells T-shirts, toe rings, boogie boards, inflatable toys and anything else that is good on or near the water.
But for nearly six months, he has had trouble keeping his head above water.
“I can equate it to a slow-motion hurricane,” Elbert said. “During a hurricane, you know what is coming and you know what you are facing. “This was something in slow motion, like a terribly bad dream,” he added. “It is a tragedy that has affected people’s lives. It’s something that has been very personal.”
Hotels saw bookings plummet. Vacationers found somewhere else to stay on the beach — Georgia, South Carolina, any place but Florida. When the number of visitors plunged, so did the cash register receipts.
“You can’t take 30 percent of people’s income away and expect them to survive, especially with the way the economy has been the last few years,” Elbert said. “Some people have been forced to close.”
Fred Simmons has not had to close, but he has had the worst year in decades.
He owns a hotel and bar and grill that overlook the beautiful waters of the bay. He also sells houses and rents vacation homes on the beach.
“It’s been tough,” Simmons said. “We’ve been down as much as 60 percent this summer.”
Hardest hit was the beach house rental business. Simmons wonders whether the people who used to come to Pensacola Beach will ever return.
“You never know if they went somewhere for vacation and found some place they enjoyed as much or more,” he said. “And maybe they won’t return next year.”
Simmons and Elbert say things improved slightly last month, as several special events were held to lure people to the beaches. John Pinzino doesn’t agree.
“If anything, it has gotten worse,” said Pinzino, who owns Island Realty. “In all the 45 years I have been in the business, it’s never been like this.”
There are a lot of properties available in the area, and a lot of bargains to be had. But no one is buying because of the fear of what still could come and because of the stigma from several months ago.
“We were minding our own business and the oil came,” Pinzino said. “It’s not our fault, but there are a lot of people ready to throw in the towel.”
Rebecca Baltz stands ready with a towel in case Emma comes across something bad during her excavations.
“There are always little tar balls. Sometimes she will come up with some black stuff,” said the mother, who lives in Pensacola with her daughter. “You expect it because you have seen it so often.”
When they lived in Alabama before moving here six years ago, the two visited Pensacola Beach for vacation.
“It used to be our favorite place to come,” she said. “We kind of fell in love with it.”
The sparkling blue-green waters. The sand that looks as pure as snow. It was their own piece of paradise.
Until June and July, that is. During those two months, the two never once came out to the beach. “Before, I thought it was a health threat,” Baltz said. “I didn’t even want to come to the beach.”
Now that hesitation has disappeared — mostly.
“I didn’t want to tell her she couldn’t come to the beach at all,” the mother said. “This is her favorite place to come.”
While Emma digs in the gooey sand where the waves wash ashore, cleanup workers in bright vests labor nearby.
They rake, they shovel, they sift the sand, trying to find tar balls and oil remnants hidden below the surface. On their hands and knees, they pick up contaminated sand with gloves.
In some locations, giant machines suck up sand, attempt to separate the oil and return the clean grains to the beach. It is that buried oil that has become a point of consternation for local officials.
“What I have been trying to do is get them to sift the sand more than 6 inches down,” said Buck Lee of the Santa Rosa Island Authority. “If we run across some, then I feel that we need to go down farther. Whether it’s 12 inches or 24 inches, we need to do that.”
But a dispute about whether cleanup workers could harm buried ancient artifacts has made deeper digging impossible for now.
“It’s been a complete cluster,” Lee said.
Whether they dig deep or dig shallow, Rebecca Baltz just wants the stain and the taint to go away. She wants Pensacola Beach returned to the way it was before April 20 changed so many lives along the Gulf Coast.
“It’s a great place to live,” she said, “except for the oil.”