Almost all the beaches along the Mississippi Coast are now closed ahead of the July Fourth weekend, with only Pascagoula’s beaches remaining open.
The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality has warned of a green-blue algae bloom extending from the Louisiana line to Ocean Springs. The freshwater algae has been spreading east in the Mississippi Sound as Mississippi River water continues pouring in from the Bonnet Carré Spillway in Louisiana.
Although the waters are closed, Harrison County Board of Supervisors’ Beverly Martin says the sand beaches are open and crews have been working to prepare the 26-mile stretch for the more than 25,000 expected holiday visitors.
“We want the public to know that the beaches are open,” Martin said. “There’s chair rentals and fire pits. Build a sand castle. There’s plenty to do.”
“If people visiting want to get wet, Harrison County has public pools and more than a dozen splash pads,” she said. “There’s something for everyone.”
Fireworks are permitted on the beaches for Independence Day weekend, but the county asks people to clean up after themselves. More than 10 tons of waste were picked up last year just from the holiday weekend, according to county spokesman Jeff Clark.
Signs and orange flags have been posted on the beach along with “no swimming” signs in scattered locations.
It’s recommended that people avoid swimming, wading and fishing as the algae can cause rashes, stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. Seafood from closed waters also should not be eaten.
‘I don’t think we’re doing enough’
Hancock County’s Board of Supervisors took steps Monday to increase awareness about water conditions by adopting a new flag system to install at 11 locations along the beaches.
The system includes four new flag colors, from green to red, and additional signs. Board president Blaine Fontaine said the move was one that the local government and emergency management agency believed was necessary.
“Most of us were caught off-guard with how fast the algae has spread,” Fontaine said. “We had an increased number of calls and saw comments on social media voicing concerns about the algae and the water. It’s not a huge financial decision to implement. It was doable and, to me, long term we needed something more.”
There are drop-down sign warnings and orange flags posted already at the entrances of most beaches in Hancock County, but Fontaine says that it was a unanimous decision to do more as the algae spreads.
“I don’t think we were doing enough,” Fontaine said. “Our beaches are more residential and it was the consensus that we needed to find a way to alert the public the best we could.”
Fontaine says the system should be implemented in the next couple weeks, once the signs and flags arrive.
‘It couldn’t have come at a worse time’
Chuck Loftis, sand beach director for Harrison County, said his department is doing all it can to make sure the public is aware of the closures.
There are about 30 signs at beach entrances across Harrison County, he said, and more than 70 orange flags.
Ahead of the holiday, Loftis said he bought 50 more flags. MDEQ also has provided 12 large “no swimming” signs distributed along the 26 miles of beach.
“This couldn’t have come at a worse time,” Loftis said Wednesday. “The beaches are open, but we’re doing all we can to make sure people are aware of the conditions of the water. We are waiting to get more large signs from MDEQ to help get the word out, but we’re hoping when people see the flags they will ask about them.”
Martin said she is confident in the warning system the county has in place, and that public safety is the county’s first concern.
Although there are concerns heading into the holiday weekend, Fontaine says he’s much more worried about the effects long-term.
“We’re seeing algae and a few issues right now, but this is just the beginning,” Fontaine said. “This is something that we’re worried will be catastrophic, maybe even more to the BP oil spill. We won’t know until we see the long-term effects.”
Here’s the updated list of the beach water closures from MDEQ:
- Station 11 – Gulfport East Beach
- Station 12B – Biloxi East Central Beach
- Station 13A – Gulfport Harbor Beach
- Station 1 – Lakeshore Beach
- Station 2 – Buccaneer State Park Beach
- Station 3 – Waveland Beach
- Station 4 – Bay St. Louis Beach
- Station 5 – Pass Christian West Beach
- Station 6 – Pass Christian Central Beach
- Station 7 – Pass Christian East Beach
- Station 7A – Long Beach Beach
- Station 8 – Gulfport West Beach
- Station 9 – Gulfport Harbor Beach
- Station 10 – Gulfport Central Beach
- Station 10B – East Courthouse Road Beach
- Station 11A – Edgewater Beach
- Station 12A – Biloxi West Central Beach
- Station 14 – Front Beach
- Station 15 – Shearwater Beach
MDEQ has also issued a water contact advisory for the Jourdan River in Hancock County from the Interstate 10 bridge to the mouth of the river into St. Louis Bay.