A nightmare becomes reality

A friend walked out on Pensacola Beach, Fla., and took a photograph of the oil -- miles of oil -- on the morning that the gunk first washed ashore.

He e-mailed the picture to me with a note that said it all: "Sickening."

Pensacola is his home, and the unthinkable has happened. Louisiana's misery is now officially Florida's misery, too.

For many residents of the Panhandle, the dreadful wait is over and their worst fears have come to pass.

In a calamity lasting so long and unfolding so inexorably, emotions swing from anger to sadness to grim acceptance. There's simply nothing to do except struggle to clean up the mess -- as Pensacolans quickly did -- and pray for the day when it's over.

Along the Gulf shores, workers are scooping up dead dolphins and trucking them off for necropsies. The pictures aren't easy to stomach, and the impulse is to look away.

It might be difficult for someone who was born and raised far from a beach or a bayou to visualize a place they cherish being poisoned and defaced on such a massive scale.

Or maybe not so difficult. Imagine if 120 million gallons of crude oil were flushed into the Minnesota headwaters of the Mississippi River, and for months the sludge was allowed to seep down through the veins of America's Midwest.

Now you begin to get the picture -- the heartbreak, the helplessness.

Far from Pensacola Beach, where tears were shed last week, a certifiable idiot named Joe Barton was apologizing to BP because President Obama had pressured the company into creating a $20 billion compensation fund for victims of the Deepwater Horizon accident.

Barton is a Republican congressman whose district in Texas includes Arlington and parts of Fort Worth, a long way from the Gulf of Mexico. Although he later was forced to apologize for his apology to BP, Barton was cheered by some tea party bloggers and others who accuse Obama of shaking down the oil giant.

Talk about misplaced sympathy.

Being clueless is one thing. To showcase such an obscene insensitivity to suffering is something else.

With the encroaching oil slick comes a mugging for all whose livelihood depends on the robust health of the Gulf. The folks staring out at a befouled horizon have mortgages, car payments, medical bills and kids who need clothes for school. Their lives are upended, and might never be the same.

Marine experts say it will take many years for the gulf waters to heal, long after the tar balls and glop are cleaned off the beaches.

A spill so deep and so torrential has no precedent, so no model exists to tell us what happens next.

For the millions of Americans who live on or near the ocean, from Kennebunkport to Seattle, the consequences of the accident don't need to be elucidated. The environment is the economy.

Interestingly, those who denounce Obama's "shakedown" of BP use no such criminal terms for what the oil company has done to the coastal communities. Assault would be the word for it. Negligence would be the cause.

Once the oil arrives and the nightmare becomes reality, those who must deal with the stink and the slop are moving past the questions that preoccupy cable news and radio talk shows.

The rig blew up because somebody made a terrible mistake, period. Just get the leak plugged. That's what matters.

Meanwhile, the tropics are heating up. Who knows how many storms will rip across the Gulf, or how far they'll spread the oil.

Gov. Charlie Crist traveled to Pensacola Beach last week. Standing among the tar puddles, the governor said, "It's pretty ugly."

Sickening is a better word.

You shouldn't have to be there to feel it.

Contact Hiaasen, a columnist for the Miami Herald, at chiaasen@miamiherald.com.