Friday, July 02, 2010

Lessons Learned -- and Now Forgotten

From the description of Island Authority Buck Lee's actions and Dr. John Lanza's rationalizations over the past two weeks which appears in today's Christian Science Monitor ["After Gulf Swimmers Report Illness, Questions about Opening a Beach"] the county and Santa Rosa Island Authority have forgotten the hard lessons once learned on Pensacola Beach. (HT to Rick Outzen for pointing to the CSM.)
Santa Rosa Island officials flew the double-red flag – no swimming – over Pensacola Beach in Florida after a swath of thick oil washed ashore from the Gulf oil spill June 23.

Two days later, against the warnings of federal health officials and based on a visual survey of the beach, the local island authority director, Buck Lee, reopened the beaches for swimming, urging residents and tourists to come back to the beach. Officials left the ultimate decision on whether it was safe to swim to beachgoers.
Several hundred beach visitors took him at his word, and this is what happened:
This week, health officials in Escambia County, Fla., which includes Pensacola Beach, reported that about 400 people claimed they felt sick after visiting the beach and swimming in the Gulf.
What Buck Lee has done since the BP oil catastrophe reached Northwest Florida threatens to wipe out nearly a decade of laudable progress by the governing board in restoring the reputation of Pensacola Beach -- and the agency itself. What Dr. Lanza has offered as an excuse Lee could use ('the situation changes from one hour to the next") is equally contemptible.

Over a decade ago, beginning in the late 1990's and through the early years of the present decade, Pensacola Beach became known around the nation as "Death Beach." This wasn't because of oil. It was because of a series of tragic drownings of local and visiting swimmers over many years in the tricky rip-currents along the beach.

As the U.S. Life Guard Association notes in an older annual report, in those days Pensacola was known as a destination where "the hazards are many and lifeguards are few." There was a different head administrator of the Island Authority, then, and mostly a different board than we have today. But the lessons the agency came to learn are just as applicable to the oil catastrophe of today.

Beginning in the year 2000, thanks largely to the intrepid efforts of former SRIA board members Don Ayres and Chuck Emling, and now current board member Thomas Campanella, the SRIA agency was pushed, pulled, and dragged into budgeting substantial funds for a comprehensive public safety program on Pensacola Beach. Permanent life guard stations were built at all the major beaches. A professional, certified staff of skilled lifeguards was hired. State of the art life-saving equipment was purchased. Mobile beach vehicles for patrolling less frequently used beaches were put in service. And, equally important, an easy-to-understand and reliable public alert system candidly describing the daily swimming conditions was implemented.

It is no exaggeration to say that these efforts by those former board members not only saved countless lives, they also rescued the reputation of Pensacola Beach. And that kind of reputation is the best "tourist promotion" money can buy.

Over the past several weeks, however, Buck Lee has been throwing that restored good reputation away. We are now in danger of being known as Prevarication Beach -- the vacation destination that won't tell you the truth about current oil conditions affecting your health.

The danger of oil is different than the danger of rip currents, of course. But there are striking parallels, too. Both involve hidden dangers not readily recognizable by temporary tourists, as well as obvious ones. For some particularly vulnerable visitors, each of the hazards can be life-threatening. And, with both kinds of hazards the risk can be mitigated only if the authorities are honest and forthright in warning the public of the danger -- even to the point, when necessary, of closing the beach.

The lame excuses not to take any particular action, once offered by the former SRIA general manager and now offered by the present one, also are strikingly similar. Back then, now-retired general manager Monte Blews often was quoted as saying about the dangerous rip currents some of the very same things Buck Lee and his comrades-in-promotion are saying today about the oil on the beach. Things like:
  • swimmers should use common sense;
  • water hazards of the Gulf change from day to day and hour to hour;
  • every person is unique and reacts to the hazard in unpredictable ways;
  • we can't anticipate every dumb move some tourist might make;
  • many more people aren't being injured;
  • Y'all come on down and have some fun, ya' hear?
We like to think that ultimately the old SRIA board and Mr. Blews did the right thing for ethical reasons and they were justly rewarded with a restored -- even enhanced -- beach reputation. But a couple of board members, we suspect, never were much impressed by the argument that the agency had a moral responsibility to do everything reasonably possible to protect the lives and health of people whom they had encouraged to visit Pensacola Beach.

Even those heart-hardened ones eventually went along, however, for the sufficient reason that they came to realize all the advertising money in the world isn't worth a damn if a beach destination earns a reputation for being cavalier about the safety of its visitors or if it lies to the public about the condition of the beach.

That's a lesson Buck Lee and quite a few Escambia County officials need to re-learn, whatever their moral or political compass may direct. If they don't, you can be sure there will be more articles like today's in the Christian Science Monitor.

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