On March 1, Heidi and Chuck Thompson did what many Minnesotans ponder about that time of year: They left their jobs in the Twin Cities and moved to the beach in Florida.
They opened an ice cream shop in Fort Myers, Sweeties on the Beach, attached to a hotel with a stretch of shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a stinky shoreline, unfortunately, thanks to a persistent red tide that caused Florida’s governor to declare a state of emergency earlier this week.
“We’re right in the heart of it,” is how Heidi Thompson describes the couple’s experience with the bloom of toxic algae that causes respiratory problems, turns the water murky and pushes dead dolphins, turtles and piles of fish to shore.
The Thompsons live on the beach near their business, and the air was so bad last month that they packed up their RV and went to Key West. “We couldn’t even go outside our house and walk our dogs,” she said. “It makes you cough. The dead fish smell is overwhelming.”
The stretch of the Gulf Coast from Fort Myers down to Bonita Springs and Naples is a hot spot for Minnesotans seeking refuge from long winters. Some return to Minnesota for the summer. Some set up permanent residence on the gulf, and some go back and forth all year. Those who there now are getting a whiff of Florida’s recurring environmental problem, but this one has lasted longer than any in the past decade.
Ron Cummings, 82, graduated from DeLaSalle High School and the University of Minnesota. He and his wife made the permanent move to Naples more than two decades ago after he retired from a 30-year career in the U.S. Navy.
Cummings coughed as he spoke, apologizing for a scratchy voice that he attributed to the poor air quality caused by the red tide even though he lives 5 miles from the beach. He has seen the tide before, but not like this. “It’s really bad,” he said.
He and his wife tried to go to the beach earlier this summer, but after stepping from their car, Cummings said, “It was like somebody put a bag over our heads and tried to choke us.”
They haven’t been back since and are heading to a resort in North Carolina to escape it, he said. Cummings, who also has asthma, said, “as soon as you take a deep breath, you’re in trouble.”
‘If the locals aren’t going …’
Cooler weather generally curbs algae growth, so fall could make life easier. But the beaches aren’t pleasant right now. “If the locals aren’t going to go down, the tourists aren’t going to come in,” Cummings said.
At her fledgling ice cream business, Thompson said her entire revenue on Thursday was $5. To compare, early July days brought in at least $250, sometimes double that.
Gov. Arne Carlson is one of Minnesota’s more famous snowbirds, with a home in Punta Gorda. Carlson said he’s not on the water, but last spring he drove 40 minutes to a waterfront restaurant for dinner. The air was so bad that he said the diners were forced indoors. “If it doesn’t dissipate by October, it’s going to be a crisis for Florida,” he said.
Carlson and others are critical of environmental policies that have made conditions ripe for widespread, long-lasting red tides, such as agriculture runoff and fast-rising atmospheric carbon levels that are leading to warmer oceans. While red tide outbreaks have occurred for centuries, the consensus is that the problem is intensifying.
Problem calls for action
Willmar native Tom Torgerson, CEO of TPI Hospitality, said the problem begs for government action. He has been working on a major development on the Fort Myers waterfront and traveling between the states.
“By the time the rush of northerners come to Florida in October, they will not see evidence of [the algae] or the tide,” he said. “However, that is not any indication that it won’t return next summer.”
Mike Schumann, who owns Traditions Classic Home Furnishings with shops in Naples and the Twin Cities, said, “We keep sweeping problems under the rug.”
He and his wife, Suzanne, set up a home in Naples in 2002 and were there last week to see water conditions he called “disconcerting.”
Schumann lives inland, but he and his wife took out their boat last week and saw hundreds of dead fish in a nearby cove. “We have never, ever seen dead fish like that that far into the bay,” he said. “It was really eye-opening.”
St. Paul native Newby Gruenhagen was at her home in Brainerd Friday, getting respite from the heat of the Bonita Bay community where she lives near Bonita Springs, just north of Naples. She sells real estate in that area.
Like many communities in Florida, hers has golf courses, swimming pools and pickle ball for residents, so the beach isn’t the only option. Gruenhagen said she doesn’t notice air problems unless she’s actually on the beach, but there were three times last winter when it was bad.
“You get used to the idea that you’ll have the red tide now and then,” she said, but added, “The thing that’s really distressing this time is they’re seeing more effects with dead turtles and dead dolphins.”
Thompson is eager for the murky lake-like water on her beach to return to crystal blue-green. Earlier this summer, she and her husband took breaks from serving iced coconut mochas and mermaid ice cream cones to push out on their paddleboards and see dolphins swimming through the clear waters. Despite the troubled waters, Thompson is content with the lifestyle change.
“It was beautiful until the last weeks of July,” she said. “Even though there are no customers today, I’m still on the beach and I can hear the waves.”