Let’s take a moment to look back in time 18 years. Old newspaper columns are similar to time capsules: When you open one that was last seen many years ago, it’s often surprising what you find inside. Stuff that you completely forgot, stuff that takes on new meaning in the context of current events, and stuff that seems strangely prophetic. This column that I wrote for the Sept. 20, 2001 edition of WaterLine is quite interesting on all those counts.

A Passing Into History

Southwest Florida boaters and fishermen have been pummeled by the results of some major events during the past few weeks. First, a serious outbreak of red tide killed many fish in the near shore Gulf. The effects of this red tide are still being tabulated, but it’s undoubtedly one of the more devastating outbreaks in the past decade in terms of fish killed out in the Gulf.

Then came the tragedies in New York and Washington, which even though many miles away still personally affected every single human being in America with a loss more devastating to our nation than that of any other single day in our history.

Within days of the terrorist sneak attacks on our nation, Southwest Florida was subjected to another sneak attack by Tropical Storm Gabrielle. Originally forecast to move away from Southwest Florida, Gabrielle instead quickly strengthened and headed directly into our backyard with torrential rains, 65-knot winds, and a storm surge of several feet. From what I’ve seen around the waterfront on Charlotte Harbor I’d say that in terms of boats sunk, docks destroyed, shorelines washed out and buildings flooded that Gabrielle was the most severe weather to hit the area for 20 years.

I’m still amazed that at 5 a.m. on the day of the storm, with NOAA forecasting a 70 mph Tropical Storm to come ashore in Sarasota, the local broadcast media were downplaying the potential effects of the storm. At 6 a.m., the television station I was watching announced: “The worst of this storm is over. It’s a non-event.” Even more amazing was that the Charlotte County school system had kids standing at bus stops during the absolute height of the storm. Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt.

We’ve been hit with lots of bad news lately, so it’s a pleasure to be able to write about some really good news, possibly the best news to hit Charlotte Harbor in years. Almost unnoticed among all the major events of the past weeks has been the passing into history of a Charlotte Harbor institution: The Florida Power and Light oil terminal on the southern tip of Gasparilla Island.

Those huge green tanks on the northern shore of Boca Grande Pass were used for more than 40 years to temporarily store tens of thousands of gallons of fuel oil destined for eventual use at the Fort Myers FPL power plant on the Caloosahatchee River.

Oceangoing barges or tankers brought large quantities of fuel oil to the Boca Grande terminal where the oil would be pumped off the ships and into the big tanks ashore. Then somewhat smaller fuel barges would shuttle the fuel from the Boca Grande terminal to the Fort Myers power plant. This arrangement was used because the oceangoing fuel vessels were too large to navigate up the river to the power plant.

One result of this somewhat complex arrangement is that there is lots of pumping of oil to and from vessels tied to a dock at the oil terminal. Another result is that there is a tug and barge rig regularly traveling the Intracoastal Waterway between Fort Myers and Boca Grande. Many a boater has delicately maneuvered around such a large tug-and-barge rig, crabbing sideways in the cross currents of narrow sections of the ICW — particularly a notorious stretch in lower Pine Island Sound appropriately called “The Miserable Mile.”

I’ve always been nervous about the potential for an environmental catastrophe involving the oil terminal. What if a storm breached the tanks? What if there was an accident during pumping operations at the terminal? What if the barges grounded and split open in the Harbor? What if a boat collided with an oil barge? A huge oil spill in Charlotte Harbor could have resulted from any of these scenarios, and such a spill would have been disastrous for our estuary.

Fortunately none of these dire situations has developed, and the biggest compliment that I can give to FPL and the operators of the oil terminal is that we haven’t heard much about them. This is a case of “no news is good news,” since there have been no significant incidents at the terminal that I’m aware of in recent years.

There have been some close calls with the barges, including more than one grounding. I remember when a tug operator headed for the wrong channel marker as he headed south down Pine Island Sound at night some years ago. The result was a firmly grounded barge south of Useppa Island which looked to be a quarter mile east of the channel. Fortunately, there was no spill of oil, and the stuck barge was refloated after pumping part of the cargo into another barge which was moored alongside.

The barges also hit the railroad trestle over the Caloosahatchee River a number of times, at least one of which resulted in a lawsuit between the railroad and the barge operator. Scary stuff, but still no spill problems.

Fortunately, those days are behind us. The Fort Myers power plant has now converted to natural gas, so the oil terminal is being shut down. The last load of fuel oil left the terminal sometime last month, and the terminal is now slated to be dismantled and the site decontaminated.

FPL has stated that they’ll sell the land on the open market, so it remains to be seen what will be taking the place of the oil terminal — but whatever goes there will allow me to sleep easier.

• • • • • • • •

It’s interesting how many of the topics from 2001 are still timely today. Of course, we still vividly remember the horrible events of 9/11/01 and we will continue to do so for many years to come. Never forget.

A few weeks ago, when most of us were fixated on watching the path of Hurricane Dorian, did you happen to notice that there was a short-lived and relatively inconsequential mid-basin Atlantic Ocean tropical storm named Gabrielle? NOAA recycles storm names, unless the storm causes enough damage to warrant retiring that name from further use.

I can tell you from being here at the time that the 2001 version of Gabrielle caused a lot of damage in Southwest Florida, but her name was not retired. Gabrielle 2019 took her anger out into the middle of the ocean and didn’t bother many people, so some day in the future we will probably get to experience yet another Gabrielle.

Red tide was a serious issue in 2001 and it’s still a serious issue in 2019. In the 18 years in between, we have learned a bit more about how red tide blooms and how it moves. But despite of what you may have seen on social media, we still don’t really know what causes it, how we might be able to stop or control it, or even if there may be beneficial side-effects to red tide, such as those associated with forest fires on land.

Those big green fuel tanks have now been gone from the southern tip of Gasparilla Island for so long that I suspect that most of today’s local residents never got to see them. They were a fixture for nearly half a century, during which time they guided boats and ships inbound to Boca Grande, and guided tarpon fishermen to big catches in Boca Grande Pass by allowing skippers to precisely line up on the various ledges and holes in the pass.

I can remember using a ladder on the outside of one of the tanks as a reference mark to line up a drift that I used to make on the south ledge. But the tanks went away and after sitting vacant for years, that property has been subdivided into very expensive residential lots on which high-end homes are now being built.

I wonder what the next 18 years will bring?

Let’s go fishing!

Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.

Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.

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