Buck Lee is a permanent fixture in these parts. He has always been here and, presumably, will always be here—soaking up salt and sun underneath the brim of his hat.
“Only time I’ve lived north of I-10 is when I was in college or in the army,” Lee said. “I love this area down here.”
Lee has served this area in various capacities. In the early 1990s, he sat on the Escambia County Commission. More recently, he held a seat on the Santa Rosa County Commission.
For the past eight years, Lee has become the public face of Pensacola Beach through his position as executive director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority. He took the job as the area struggled to recover from Hurricane Ivan.
“About six weeks later Dennis hit,” Lee recalled.
It was an appropriate way to begin, as the director has since repeatedly ushered the beach through one kind of hit or another. If not a hurricane, then the economy. If not the economy, an oil spill.
“It was a complete headache trying to get our beaches back to normal,” Lee said.
The oil spill was a new kind of monster. Instead of holding tight through the high winds and water of a hurricane, the beach suffered a long, hot summer of uncertainty.
The spill sent oil washing up on beaches across the Gulf Coast, with Pensacola Beach on Florida’s front lines. Lee watched as BP contractors and the U.S. Coast Guard scrambled to respond. It was bad for the environment and bad for the beach’s economy.
Throughout the summer of 2010, the SRIA director helped keep the public informed of the situation on Pensacola Beach. Three years later and Lee, in fact, is still dealing with the spill—tarballs and tarmats are still being removed from the beach.
Until recently, BP funded patrols to monitor gulf beaches for oil. Although the British petroleum company had previously vowed to stay until there were no signs of oil, that guarantee apparently evolved.
“I think it’s terrible—you know, last month we removed over 400 pounds of a tarmat,” Lee grumbled. “And now they say, ‘Okay, the beach is clean, let’s go.’ Well, it’s not.”
The SRIA director said the move from BP should not have been totally unexpected.
“I’ve heard all the horror stories from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska,” Lee said. “It’s the first thing they wanted to do, was get out of there, and that’s what they want to do here.”
But Lee can’t spend too much time dwelling on how BP is shafting the Gulf Coast—something he commiserated about recently with oil spill-icon and Plaquemines Parish, La. President Billy Nungessor—because he’s currently busy trying to figure out how the beach will weather the summer since the national sequester has grounded the Blue Angels and knocked out the traditional July 4 air show.
Don’t worry. Lee’s already coordinated a backup plan for civilian planes to provide the annual overhead entertainment. The show must go on.