Beyond the horizon

Ten years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, parks help gulf coast communities recover—and sustain—their way of life.

Fishing is in Dewey Destin’s DNA. In 1835, fed up after a poor fishing season, Destin’s great-great-grandfather Leonard left New England and set his sails south, seeking richer waters. After surviving some trials and tribulations—a hurricane, a shipwreck, and a dreaded yellow fever season—he eventually made his way to a tiny peninsula on the Gulf of Mexico, sixty miles east of the Florida-Alabama line. There he built a home on a sandy strip of land facing the translucent emerald waves of Choctawhatchee Bay.

Land and People Magazine: Spring-Summer 2020
DEWEY DESTIN
“You take fishing out of Destin and it wouldn’t be what it is today.”

This spit of sand would eventually come to be known as Destin—the “world’s luckiest fishing village.” And for Leonard Destin, these waters were certainly a fortunate find. Just offshore, the gulf drops precipitously to deeper waters that nurture schools of red snapper and Spanish mackerel—a sea of plenty for a fisherman like Destin to build a business, selling his catch to market in nearby Pensacola. Growing up in the lucky fishing village named for his forebearer, Dewey Destin followed in his family’s footsteps, learning to catch crabs and mullet. Today, he owns a string of local seafood restaurants, including one next door to the spot where his great-great-grandfather Leonard first settled.

On a sunny, seventy-degree day in December, I met Destin on the boardwalk outside the restaurant to talk about his town’s history, its luck, and the ways that luck continues to be tested. A tall, slender man with white hair, polarized sunglasses, and a relaxed manner, Destin gently shooed a seagull trying to snatch a shrimp from a nearby plate before joining me at a picnic table.

“You take fishing out of Destin and it wouldn’t be what it is today,” he told me, looking out over Choctawhatchee Bay while we snacked on fried gulf shrimp and hushpuppies. Easy access to a productive fishery is the reason the largest recreational charter fishing fleet in North America docks right here in Destin. The chance to hook a huge sailfish combined with the opportunity to enjoy white sand beaches and sparkling waters is what draws millions to visit the town each year. Today, tourism accounts for nearly a third of the jobs in this county of 68,000 residents.

“Our natural resources are what built this economy,” says Kathy Marler Blue, director of the Destin History and Fishing Museum. “Having good water, a good fishery, and beautiful beaches helped us become the world-class resort we are today.”

So you can imagine how Destin residents felt when they woke on the morning of April 21, 2010, to news of a disaster unfolding just offshore. The night before, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig had exploded out in the gulf, killing 11 crewmen. The complicated machinery that had tapped into an oil deposit deep under the sea floor collapsed. Crude oil gushed from the hole and seeped into the currents circulating around the Gulf of Mexico.

Land and People Magazine: Spring-Summer 2020

Satellites would eventually capture horrifying images of an oily sheen extending across an estimated 68,000 square miles of the gulf.

Satellites would eventually capture horrifying images of an oily sheen extending across an estimated 68,000 square miles of the gulf. Oil coated the beaches from Louisiana to Alabama, causing mass mortality among fish, seabirds, and marine mammals. In Louisiana, oil choked the plants that were holding together the state’s already-disappearing coastline. President Obama declared it the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Land and People Magazine: Spring-Summer 2020

As the slick spread, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration closed more than a third of the gulf’s fishery to protect consumers from contaminated seafood. Instead of hauling in their catches that summer, gulf fishermen put their boats to work installing floating barriers, trying to prevent oil from reaching their home shores. The region’s commercial fishing industry lost $1.6 billion in the first eight months.

“Fishing seasons are good and bad. Hurricanes come and go,” Destin said. “But that’s the first time in my life that I realized we had the potential to really ruin Destin and what it was— perhaps permanently.”

On July 15, 2010, 87 days after the explosion, crews finally capped the well. But that was just the first step in a complex and hard-fought recovery that has played out in courts, statehouses, and communities across Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas ever since. In 2011, the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustee Council reached an agreement with BP, the company that had hired Deepwater Horizon. BP agreed to front a billion dollars for restoration, research, and land protection throughout the region. And in 2016, a federal judge in New Orleans ordered BP to pay $20 billion to help Gulf Coast communities recover. It was the largest environmental settlement in U.S. history.

The Florida Panhandle—the part of the state stretching roughly from Tallahassee west to the Alabama border—is far enough from the spill’s epicenter that its beaches escaped severe contamination. But the disaster still brought the economy to a halt, says Phil Coram, program administrator for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Florida’s beaches and waterways are the primary attraction for the more than 100 million tourists who flock to the Sunshine State each year. After the spill, “People stopped going to the beach. They stopped fishing,” Coram says. “And so we sought funds from BP to compensate for those lost recreational uses.”

Rick O’Connor is an educator and naturalist in Pensacola. When BP money began flowing into the area, he feared it would be used to put up more high-rise condominiums with private beach fronts—as he’s watched happen elsewhere in Florida, particularly in Destin.

  • Land and People Magazine: Spring-Summer 2020
  • Land and People Magazine: Spring-Summer 2020
  • Land and People Magazine: Spring-Summer 2020
  • Land and People Magazine: Spring-Summer 2020

“The nature-based tourism economy is critical to many Panhandle communities. Parks are the key to sustaining it.”

“We had to convince decision-makers that keeping [the waterfront] wild was just as economically viable,” O’Connor says. His colleagues conducted a study showing that 40 percent of the region’s visitors sought nature-based experiences as part of their vacation packages. Armed with those findings, he’s been promoting ecotourism in the area and has helped established a new paddling trail along the Perdido River. “The nature-based tourism economy is critical to many Panhandle communities,” says O’Connor. “Parks are the key to sustaining it.”

The Trust for Public Land has helped Floridians create and protect great places to get outside for more than 40 years. Since 2015, the organization has drawn on funding from BP’s settlement to build or expand waterfront parks in six communities in western Florida. This winter, I took a drive along the Panhandle, visiting these new parks and meeting with locals who are envisioning a more resilient future for the Gulf Coast.

Land and People Magazine: Spring-Summer 2020

Six new parks in western Florida are keeping people connected to their home coast.

Floridians are no strangers to disaster—and recovery. And as the climate changes, many are reckoning with the threat of a new, more hazardous normal. That’s true in Lynn Haven, a small city sixty miles east of Destin. The city’s hardworking, residential way of life sits in sharp contrast to the perma-spring break vibe in neighboring Panama City Beach. Even still, the oil spill upset the status quo.

“When the oil spill hit, we spent millions of dollars trying to clean up beaches everywhere,” says Vickie Gainer, city manager for Lynn Haven. “It felt like a never-ending story, but we finally got back to normal. And then Hurricane Michael hit.”

On October 10, 2018, the eye of Hurricane Michael came ashore at Mexico Beach, Florida. It was the first storm to make landfall in the United States as a Category 5 hurricane since Andrew in 1992. The storm claimed 16 lives and caused $25 billion in damage, including destroying 85 percent of Lynn Haven’s homes and 50 percent of its businesses.

“To this day, there are still people who have not moved back into their homes,” says Gainer. “I’m one of those folks. But our parks were truly, truly damaged. [Before the storm], that’s where folks spent most of their time.”

As Michael brewed out in the Gulf of Mexico, crews had already broken ground on the new Lynn Haven Bayou Park and Preserve, one of the waterfront parks made possible by Deepwater Horizon settlement funding. Along with so many other aspects of life, the storm threw the project into chaos, pushing its scheduled opening back into late 2020—another blow for the already-battered community.

When I visited this winter, the park was still under construction. But as I toured the 97-acre site, I imagined the day when people will be able to meander the palmetto-lined trails through the tall pine forests sprinkled with fragrant magnolias. Families will climb to the top of the wildlife overlooks to spot manatee, bear, and deer. Kayakers will use the docks and ramps to access North Bay. This will be a place where residents and visitors alike can take a break from their daily challenges and find solace and inspiration in the natural world.

As you leave Lynn Haven and drive along Highway 98, the storm’s impact is still brutally apparent. Boarded-up pastel houses sit on stilts waiting to be fixed. Most of the trees are snapped into splinters. But for many residents, addressing this physical toll is just one aspect of the long, challenging recovery ahead.

“People from outside don’t really realize how deep the scars are,” says Patricia Hardman, who lives in the small town of Cape San Blas. “There is a lot of hidden depression in this community.” Hardman is one of the many residents who’ve provided input and ideas for an addition to nearby Salinas Park, another BP-funded park project delayed by Hurricane Michael.

Land and People Magazine: Spring-Summer 2020

I strolled along the park’s fresh boardwalk parallelling St. Joseph Bay with Warren Yeager, a Gulf County administrator. As we passed signage educating park visitors about the local blue crabs, marsh wrens, and seaside sparrows, he tells me his grandfather raised nine children as a commercial fisherman on this bay. When he was old enough, Yeager helped his grandfather reel in his catch. “To say this park holds a special place in my heart would be an understatement,” he says.

Lifelong Cape San Blas resident Dwayne Piergiovanni agrees. He stuck it out through both the oil spill and Hurricane Michael, which closed the restaurant he owns and operates for six months. “When you see places being restored after being destroyed, it brings back some normalcy and helps people see that things will get better,” he says.

Back in Destin, people counted their blessings. The brunt of the hurricane—like the worst of the oil spill—had spared them.

But in a region where prosperity is intertwined with visitors’ perceptions, there’s no such thing as escaping unscathed. “Even though we didn’t have oil here, they showed oil on the water everywhere on the news,” Destin says. “It scared people and they just didn’t come.” A 2010 study found that lost tourism was projected to cost the Gulf Coast up to $22.7 billion over three years. Dewey Destin estimates his restaurants lost more than 60 percent of their usual business that summer.

In his lifetime, Destin has seen the town named for his forebearers grow from a remote fishing village to a vacation destination that draws millions of visitors annually. Many of those visitors—and the people who live in Destin year-round—will welcome the new Captain Leonard Destin Park, created with funding from the Deepwater Horizon recovery settlement.

The new park—built on the same spot where Leonard Destin first built his home in the mid-1800s—is part of the community’s plan to ensure everyone benefits equitably from the area’s natural riches. These days, private condos, restaurants, and shops line much of Destin’s waterfront. Paying customers can find plenty of places to reserve a fishing boat for a day on the deep sea, but those looking to launch a kayak into Choctawhatchee Bay can be hard-pressed to find public access.

“Access to the waterfront: that’s the main thing we need,” says Captain Jerry Anderson. He’s owned a commercial and recreational fishing charter business in western Florida since 1978. “All over the East Coast, our working waterfront is vanishing—investors come in and build subdivisions on lowlands and wetlands, instead of making a park there for the average Joe. That’s where The Trust for Public Land came in, and thank God for that.”

  • Land and People Magazine: Spring-Summer 2020
  • Land and People Magazine: Spring-Summer 2020
  • Land and People Magazine: Spring-Summer 2020
  • Land and People Magazine: Spring-Summer 2020

Back at the Destin History and Fishing Museum, Kathy Marler Blue affirmed that life here revolves around a shared connection to the gulf, and to each other. “The families who founded Destin knew the sea could provide for them, and they knew it could take them just as quick. They shared and rallied and helped each other meet their basic needs,” she said.

This interdependence is part of the reason Gulf Coast communities have been able to bounce back from both natural and manmade disasters. After Hurricane Michael, Lynn Haven City Manager Vickie Gainer worked long hours passing out supplies to her neighbors in need. Likewise, Cape San Blas resident Pat Hardman helped organize a holiday toy drive for the Gulf County families who lost their belongings. And they’re two of the many who’ve given their time and input to shape the future of their new shared waterfront parks.

“Sometimes we become very jaded to the beauty of nature because we’re so busy trying to clean up and rebuild,” Gainer says. “These types of parks show that there’s still hope. That there’s beauty even after a storm.”

About the author
Land and People Magazine: Spring-Summer 2020
Rebecca Burton
Rebecca Burton is a Pensacola, Florida, native whose love for her hometown beaches inspired her to become a science writer with a focus on our natural environment. She is the cofounder of The Marjorie, a women-owned reporting nonprofit that promotes a greater understanding of issues related to women and the environment in Florida through storytelling and community building. themarjorie.org

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