The Florida we know and love is ruined.
That’s our new reality and people are living it in this beach town. Naples beaches are known as some of the state’s best for their tidy white sands and pristine waters, but the toll of the toxic red tide invasion is relentless. No, the environmental disaster that appeared last fall — and kept us away all summer — hasn’t gone away even though your friends may be posting on social media pretty sunset pictures.
The ocean waters are pools of dark brown muck.
Dead crabs and other sea life litter the sands.
Oh, the stench!
You can’t swim. There’s not a soul in the water.
The usually crowded beach is mostly deserted, except for the few who come to sun, to wait for the sunset — test the waters, so to speak — and also to document what happens when government enacts bad environmental policy. A videotape of a pod of dolphins struggling in dark waters too close to shore near the pier makes The Naples Daily News. It makes you very mad.
You sit on the sand, and soon enough, you start to have trouble breathing.
Even protected by thick beach towels, you can’t stand the smells long enough to eat the panini you bought at a Fifth Avenue coffee shop.
“Noooooo! Don’t touch!” you scream at your kid, 3, who has run to the shore, picked up two dead crabs and thrown them back into the ocean.
So much for the beachside picnic.
The kid returns disappointed, sneezing, and with red eyes.
You have to witness the environmental destruction to believe it, although if you do, you’ll be sitting at your desk working with irritated eyes and a scratchy throat like I am right now.
This wasn’t the plan.
I left Miami behind under pouring skies early Saturday with all the enthusiasm that hitting the road entails. Once on Alligator Alley, and crossing the Florida Everglades on my way to the southwest coast, the skies began to clear and a snippet of a rainbow peeked from inoffensive white clouds ahead.
Rain used to be the only thing you thought could ruin a beach trip in Florida, but that’s no longer the case. The omen of what I would find came as the clearer swamp waters of Broward gave way to shades of brown after crossing the Collier County line.
As it turned out, this wasn’t the only county or the only miles and miles of coast reeling from red tide last weekend.
On the Atlantic coast, double red flags flew across beach waters in Palm Beach County to alert people about a rare east coast toxic red tide, most likely carried by waters from the southwest, the Miami Herald reported. Martin County also closed beaches. Miami-Dade and Broward beaches are now being tested for red tide, too.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This is the handiwork of Gov. Rick Scott, now running for Sen. Bill Nelson’s seat, and the predominantly Republican state Legislature, which gutted the Department of Environmental Regulation, among a litany of other ill-conceived measures.
This is what Floridians’ divisive elections begat.
For the past eight years, these elected leaders favored business and agricultural interests over people and environment — and this is the result of dismantling environmental regulations like regular inspections of septic tanks that were meant to protect Florida’s fragile ecosystems.
This is what happens when you play politics with Mother Earth.
She strikes back.
The Florida we love is being destroyed by Big Sugar and other agricultural and development polluters enabled by Scott and his administration with the full cooperation of the GOP.
“I don’t understand how this could happen. We’re very conservative here,” my hotel checkout clerk in Naples said, trying to explain what I had just experienced on the beach.
That’s how ignorant Floridians can be about state government. Even a person whose job in the tourism and hospitality industry is being affected by red tide and algae bloom disasters doesn’t get it, although he can see with his own eyes his hotel is empty on a great-weather weekend.
It hurts deeply. It angers you to see in person the miles of dirty beaches and algae-infected waterways.
It’s sick to say it, but there’s no better way to experience the debacle than by making a trip to Naples, home of Florida’s governor.
Follow Santiago on Twitter, @fabiolasantiago