Fred A. Bernstein

Southwest Florida's Red Tide Woes

Contaminated beaches -- and persistent respiratory problems -- hit a region that includes some of America's fast-growing cities

Published in The New York Times, April 23, 2005

Casey Key, Fla.

THERE must be something that would cool the market for Gulf Coast real estate. But contaminated beaches - and persistent respiratory problems - are not deterring buyers on this lush barrier island, where prices for waterfront houses have risen about 50 percent (to an average of more than $4 million) in the last year.

An unusually persistent red tide bloom has been causing health problems for residents and visitors in much of southwest Florida since Christmas. The tide, an increased concentration of algae called Karenia brevis, leaves water looking murky and beaches covered in dead fish. More perplexingly, a powerful neurotoxin in the algae enters the atmosphere, causing coughing and other symptoms in a region that includes some of the fastest-growing cities in the country.

"It's incredible how many people have been coming through the door with cough, congestion, irritation, eustachian tube congestion, that is caused or exacerbated by red tide," said Dr. Michael Patete, an ear, nose and throat specialist in Venice.

Red tides have been hitting southwest Florida for centuries, scientists say. But blooms most commonly occur in September or October, according to Cynthia Heil, a senior research scientist and head of the red tide group at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.

This year's bloom, which began about four months ago, is only now dissipating, with pockets remaining in some inlets, Dr. Heil said.

Residents, though, don't need scientists to tell them something's wrong. "I've lived here 30 years, and it's never been this bad before," said Chuck Savidge, who was tending the garden of his Spanish-style home on this picturesque island south of Sarasota.

Dianne Manspeaker, manager of the Gulf Surf Resort Motel here, said: "The red tide is very difficult to live with. You cough and choke, and cough and choke and sneeze, and then go down and bury the dead fish."

There is no way to know when the red tide will return. "It could be tomorrow, or it might not happen until next year," Dr. Heil said. She said scientists are researching mitigation techniques, but none have proved effective on a bloom that can cover 5,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico.

"If there were a practical way to mitigate it, it would have been implemented long ago," Dr. Heil said. "These blooms have too much of an impact on South Florida."

Nikki La Belle, who lives on Casey Key, said that the red tide caused her family to have painful symptoms. For months, she said, "we had to run from the car to the house."

Terry Davenport, an advertising executive who lives in Sarasota, said it's not possible to go to the beach. "You'll cough yourself to death," she said. "I know people buy houses on the beach, but I wouldn't."

She may be the exception, because Gulf Coast real estate is hot. In the first three months of the year, 10 waterfront houses sold on Casey Key, according to the Multiple Listing Service database for Sarasota. They ranged in price from $1.6 million to $6.6 million, with an average price of slightly over $4 million.

In the same period in 2004, the average price was $2.7 million, according to the data.

Several real estate agents said they haven't lost a single deal because of the red tide. At worst, they said, it makes showing houses in places like Casey Key a challenge.

"I'm sure, if you're looking for a beachfront house, it ruins your shopping day," said Eddie Barrett, an agent with Buyer's Team in Sarasota, a firm that represents purchasers. "It's like trying to show a house up north when there's a blizzard."

But blizzards don't last months, and they don't cause respiratory ailments. Hoteliers are worried about their guests. At the Gulf Sands Beach Resort, Alan Redmon, the owner, said of the red tide: "It's a sore subject. Of course I'm scared. It could put us out of business."

This year, he said, business wasn't affected, because his customers are regulars who book as much as a year in advance. But some days, he said, "They had to stay indoors, with the A.C. going."

Nancy Zolnowski, who came from Cleveland to spend much of the winter at the Gulf Surf Resort Motel, said being inside "is not what you come to Florida to do."

Indeed, a billboard on Route 41, north of Fort Myers, suddenly seems like a poor choice of words. It advertises a new high-rise development with the phrase "breathless views."

An elderly woman who would only give her first name - Nan - said that she and her husband "have felt awful for months."

"We went to the doctor, and he said, 'Oh, it's just red tide,' " she said. Still, she and her husband are getting ready to buy a house near Sarasota. "Every place," she said, "has something."

Mr. Barrett said that he has had buyers ask to reschedule appointments to see houses. But as far as he knows, no one has decided not to buy in the area because of it. "It's just something you live with," he said.

Some local residents like to look at the bright side. A particularly nasty red tide in 1996 killed 150 manatees. This year, the manatee toll is only in the dozens.

Ms. Manspeaker of the Gulf Surf Resort Motel recalls one winter when the red tide was so bad, she had to make calls on Thursdays, telling people, "Don't come down this weekend - if you do, you'll hate me."

Most residents say hurricanes - like the three that belted the Gulf Coast last year - are far more worrisome than algae.

Still, there is no way to know what the long-term health effects will be, according to Dr. Patete. Dr. Heil agreed. "The data just isn't there," she said.

Residents - and visitors to the region - can track the red tide at www.floridamarine .org or by calling (941)388-4441 and pressing 64.

Or they can just check with their pets. Tom Cross, an artist who lives on Casey Key, said his dog, Eddy, a 3-year-old Shiba Inu, "is like the canary in the mine - we know when the red tide is coming, because he starts to sneeze."

In fact, Mr. Cross said, the dog starts sneezing "so violently, so uncontrollably, that we have to restrain him so he doesn't hurt his head." Several Web sites are devoted to the health effects of the red tide on pets.

Lisa Surdam, a resident of Little Gasparilla Island, maintains a site called She said that people who live in the area know that red tide can make their dogs sick, but "we need to get the word out" to people who visit with their animals, then leave. When those dogs begin coughing, she said, misdiagnosis is likely.

Despite it all, Ms. Zolnowski, the visitor from the Midwest, said she would come to Casey Key again. "Even with red tide," she said, "it beats Ohio in the winter."