Wednesday, June 30, 2010

CTD Wednesday June 30 BP Oil Spill Update

1. Hurricane Alex.

Alex is officially a hurricane. The storm is expected to make landfall near the Texas-Mexican border "late tonight or early Thursday morning," NHC's early morning advisory says. It likely will continue to strengthen as it hits the mainland.

Locally, Pensacola is well away from the projected wind field, but the Mobile NOAA regional weather center expects higher than normal tides and "rough surf and breaking waves" along area beaches. "Brief wind gusts from 25 to 35 mph and locally heavy rain will be the main threat in passing bands."

Mobile NOAA adds, "winds and waves will abate to close out the week."

2. CTD Lessons from Alaska.

Erin Kourkounis of the PNJ covered a BRACE luncheon talk by Prof. Steve Picou of the University of South Alabama. Prof. Picou is a sociologist. He's tracked indicators of community stress and decline in various towns near the Exxon Valdez oil spill site for a quarter century in such articles as "The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and Chronic Psychological Stress," co-authored with Duane Gill in 1996.

Kourkounis sums it up well in the lede: "Depression. Domestic violence. Rising divorce rates. Growing feelings of mistrust. Suicides. Substance abuse."

That could well be a litany applied to any number of American towns, big and small, which once flourished and later fell on hard times or disappeared altogether. Think Lynn, Massachusetts; Centralia, Pennsylvania, Gary, Indiana; Galena, Illinois; Times Beach, Missouri; Bisbee, Arizona, Bodie, California.

Some of these towns have survived as mere shells of their former selves, others are now ghost towns. Each was undone by a different cause: a shift in manufacturing, advances in transportation technology that passed them by, ecological disaster, the abuse and eventual disappearance of natural wonders, and so on.

Yet, as Gunter, Aronoff, and Joel argued in a useful article some years ago ["Toxic Contamination and Communities"], there is something special about decline due to "chronic technological disasters (CTD)". Thanks to BP's massive oil spill, Pensacola -- indeed, the whole Florida panhandle -- faces the real danger of a decades-long decline. County and town leaders need to see this clearly and squarely address it.

The first step, we think, is to resist ineffectual boosterism and put at least as much energy and effort into understanding how other towns have handled CTD's, where some went wrong, and why others succeeded. There is a rich professional literature on the subject. Inviting experts like Steve Picou and a host of others is a part of that first step, but only a part.

3. NBC on Pensacola Beach.

Brian Williams did two segments on Pensacola Beach for NBC's Evening News last night and anchored a third on the oil spill in Louisiana. View the beach excerpts here and here. If there is one thing he proved from his station high above the eastern portion of Pensacola Beach, it's that the county health department needs to get the lead out of its britches and begin directly monitoring the quality of beach water and sand.

4. Tarballs Everywhere.

Front page headlines in the PNJ today include the news that Navarre Beach is experiencing "plate size tarballs" of oil. It is the largest oil detritus so far to wash ashore at Navarre Beach.

As reporter Louis Cooper notes, however, Navarre Beach is not alone:
[T]ar balls continued to wash ashore on Escambia County beaches Tuesday. Aerial reconnaissance flights observed streamers of mousse and sliver sheen hovering just offshore near Johnson Beach, Fort Pickens and Pensacola Beach, Escambia County
5. Navarre Beach Daily Beach Report.

Cooper also reports on an unsurprising innovation tourist promoters have started at Navarre Beach: daily video updates on the condition of the surf and sand:
People concerned about the impact of the ongoing BP oil spill on Navarre Beach have a new, daily online resource.

Santa Rosa County public information officials on Monday began compiling a daily video report on conditions at the beach. The report will be posted at by noon, Monday through Friday.

"I receive phone calls from people every day, from locals and out-of-towners who want to know what the beach conditions are like as it relates to the oil crisis," said Santa Rosa Public Information Officer Joy Tsubooka.

"With the video beach updates, it gives people one more tool to receive information and make decisions, especially for those who live out of town and may only see national coverage and get the impression that Santa Rosa County beaches and fishing areas are not open," she said.
That's the spin, anyway. Listen to the current report and you get a lot of 'happy-happy' beach talk mixed with some generalized info about the current state of tarballs and oil sheen.

Can't blame them for that. Promoting tourism isn't a news assignment. Besides, anyone adept enough with a computer or PDA who manages to navigate to hardly can miss the fact they're getting a large dose of spin with their tarballs.

What's surprising is the inconvenient technology and the venue, half-hidden inside a government agency web site. Any "out of towners " looking for a video about beach conditions are far more likely to check in at YouTube or one of the dozen other popular video sites where residents and recent beach visitors are busy posting their own mini-movies -- like this one.

There are many more video sharing sites than YouTube, too. None of them is a Santa Rosa county web site. Check out the Top Ten or even the top fifty.

As for technology, many more potential visitors are using a browser already equipped with a Flash video player, instead of the odious RealPlayer, often ranked as one of the "25 worst tech products of all time."

Memo to Local Tourist Promoters: Whether you're sharing facts or blowing sand in the eyes of potential tourists, you need to go to the Internet places they inhabit and use the technical tools they prefer.

6. The Futility of Lying About Beach Conditions.

The persistent failure of Escambia County health and beach administration officials to tell the unvarnished truth about the oil disaster on Pensacola Beach is being noticed.

Ellen Klas, the estimable reporter who often covers Northwest Florida stories for the St. Petersburg Times, reports on the stunned reactions of Pensacola Beach residents when they see what BP's spill has done to the beach ["Oil Blankets Pensacola Beach"]. Aptly, she records the shattered dreams of beach goers in what we took, at first, to be a kind of sing-song rhythm reminiscent of Ding Dong School's "Miss Francis:"
Here came Courtney Laczko, 16 and sunkissed, who has been coming to the beach almost every morning since school let out because she knew the days were numbered.

"It's actually really here," she kept saying.

She thought about the dolphins and how she used to pretend they were a happy little family. She thought about the time her mom wasn't working and she took the kids to the beach every day. Bologna sandwiches and Capri Sun in the cooler.

"It was always the prettiest beach around here. You can't say that anymore."

Here came Kathy Allen, 15 and native. She thought about that night in November, after the homecoming dance, when a boy named Dakota leaned in and kissed her lips, her first ever, and how the stars seemed so bright and sparkly.

Here came Stef Ackerman, 22 and tattooed, who learned to fish here and surf here. He walked to the oil and squatted and ran his finger up under his sunglasses. He thought about all those journeys to the beach with his dad to watch the Blue Angels zing down the shoreline and about that fishing trip when his older brother came home from war. How they talked and fished all day.

This? He doesn't know how to process it.

"I don't know what to do," he said. "I don't know if anybody knows what to do."

On reflection, perhaps Klas' tone is less like the always-sunny Miss Francis than it is the ominous voice of Mathew Arnold in his The Forsaken Mermen:
Call her once before you go--
Call once yet!
In a voice that she will know:
"Margaret! Margaret!"
Children's voices should be dear
(Call once more) to a mother's ear;
Children's voices, wild with pain--
Surely she will come again!
Call her once and come away;
This way, this way!
"Mother dear, we cannot stay!
The wild white horses foam and fret."
Margaret! Margaret!

Come, dear children, come away down;
Call no more!
One last look at the white-wall'd town,
And the little gray church on the windy shore;
Then come down!
She will not come though you call all day;
Come away, come away!
Whatever her inspiration, Klas' article is worth a read.

We normally do not pay much attention to eschatologists. But Elizabeth Pratta has an insight into Pensacola Beach prevaricating that's also worth mentioning:
I wish that the first priority of the officials was the protection of our society's most vulnerable. But it isn't. It's money. They store up the expense of the lives and the health of their brothers and sisters on this earth. Perilous times indeed.
7. Boosters and Beach Business.

Historians also have much to contribute to the discussion, too. If there is one loud and clear lesson to take away from the bulk of the historical CTD studies we have read it's this: blatant boosterism never works.

As Carl Abbott writes in "Boosters and Businessmen," public discourse on economic growth in hard times as well as good too commonly seems to have the purpose of aiding individual business enterprises "rather than the interests of the larger community." Or, to paraphrase another scholar's unpublished dissertation on CTDs (Daniel Aaron), what passes for "vision" in times of town crisis often means little more than expressions of blind faith in real estate, T-shirt shops, and the hotel business.
minor edit 6-30 am

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