Southwest's Newest Destination: The Gulf Oil Spill

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Since the late '70s, even without having an airport worth mentioning, the Florida Panhandle has managed to boom to the point of unrecognizability. The blinding white sand of the beaches and the heartbreakingly clear deep blue seawater were enough to attract millions of tourists by the station wagon load. Since about 1975, Destin -- to name one example -- has gone from one motel (the long-gone Spyglass Inn, run by two irascible Polish immigrants) to miracle mile after miracle mile of strip malls, high-rise condos, and cheesy bars.

And now the region (nearby Panama City to be exact) is getting a brand-new international airport -- the first new one in this country since 1997. So in addition to the swarms of pale Canucks and Bible-toting Tennesseans who have long taken the waters there, soon the Emerald Coast's beaches will soon also be overrun with, as Eric Idle once put it, "sweaty mindless oafs from Kettering and Coventry in their cloth caps and their cardigans and their transistor radios and their Sunday Mirrors" and "swimming pools full of fat German businessmen pretending they're acrobats forming pyramids and frightening the children." Hope they've stocked up on Watney's Red Barrel.

Southwest will be ferrying in the Houstonians too, and to herald the departure of its first few non-stop flights, the almost creepily wacky airline threw a lunchtime shindig on the corner of Louisiana and Clay. A couple of dozen Southwest employees in straw beach hats and Hawaiian shirts shimmied to the blissful, ethereal riddims of a steel drum trio. Southwest ball caps and shoulder bags were there for the taken and a few lucky winners got pairs of round-trip tickets to Panama City.

Which, thanks to the BP/Transocean Epic Clusterfuck is sounding like Hell on Earth these days.

Or at least on Saturday, when according to the Destin Log, this was the scene:

While the waters and beaches in Destin continue to shine clear, concerns shift to reports of oil covered animals and the lingering smell of burning fuel.

Crystal Beach [Florida] resident Linda Herrmann said she first noticed a "funny smell" in the air two weeks ago.

"It was a Friday evening," she remembered. "The winds were calm, and there was a very diesel-like smell in the air."

The smell that has area residents concerned is directly related to Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, as crews burned large amounts of oil on the water's surface near Mississippi. Southern winds have pushed the odor of burning oil to the Emerald Coast.

"I could still smell it last night (Wednesday)," Herrmann said. "We made sure to bring all of our pets inside."

The Okaloosa County Health Department issued a news release late Thursday afternoon advising residents that "exposure to petroleum-like odors may cause temporary respiratory symptoms in sensitive individuals, such as eye, nose and throat irritation."

Okay, okay, so maybe "Hell on Earth" is a little strong. (That would be Haiti.)

But that does sound a lot like home. Why bother flying all the way to Panama City when we've got all the burning fumes, pet warnings and eye, nose and throat irritations anyone could ever ask for right here in H-Town?

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