A year later, Gulf Coast still coming to terms with oil spill

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 11, 2011 

BAYOU LA BATRE, Ala. — It was nearing sunset on a muggy night when Debra Bosarge arrived at the State Docks, her daughter, Celia, buckled into the passenger seat. They were there to wave goodbye as Bosarge's boyfriend, Connie Johnson, set out for a night of shrimping aboard the trawler Empty Pockets.

It's a familiar scene in this village, which bills itself as the seafood capital of Alabama, but it has added poignancy this summer: The Gulf Coast is on the rebound a year after the BP oil spill wreaked havoc on the economy, environment and psyche. Yet the relief felt a year ago when crews finally maneuvered into place the cap that stopped the gushing well is tempered by anxiety over the future.

"They've gone back to work, but is it still scary? Yes," said Bosarge, 31, who's a descendant of the town's founding family. "We just pray and try not to think of it a whole lot. If you dwell on it, it's in your head all the time."

This Friday will mark one year since oil stopped flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, and a drive along the coast from the sugar white sands of Pensacola, Fla., to the barrier islands of Louisiana over the Fourth of July weekend found many signs of progress: Bustling beaches were free of oil, Gulf seafood was on the menus and marinas that had canceled fishing rodeos when the oil was swirling say the fish are biting.

.But despite those scenes of a region recovering, conversations all along the Gulf Coast showed that many are still grappling with an enormous sense of distrust.

Some can't quite bring themselves to believe government assertions that the spill didn't do as much damage as first feared. Others don't believe assurances that the seafood is safe to eat. Everywhere, people expressed fear that oil still lurks deep in the Gulf and that a sizable hurricane could spit it back onshore.

"I'm not a rocket scientist but I've got enough sense to know all that oil just doesn't disappear," Bosarge said.

Across the Gulf, state economists are still tallying lost sales taxes, fishing license revenue and other data to determine how much each state lost during the 87 days — from April 20 to July 15, 2010 — that the oil spewed into the Gulf. Analysts suggest that it could take years to fully detail the economic and environmental effects of the disaster.

The tourists, though, are returning. Among them, Ynese Davis, who last year skipped her usual fishing vacation to Pensacola, Fla., and traveled instead to the casinos in Tunica, Miss.

The Atlanta native was back this year, happily pursuing croaker and white trout from the deck of the Bay Bridge Fishing Pier in Pensacola.

"There's been trouble everywhere," said Davis, who's 53, noting that Tunica closed the casinos for two weeks this spring when the Mississippi River rose to historic levels. "But I can't complain here. I'm just glad to be back. You saw that oil, you didn't know if you'd ever be here again."

Many businesses report a rebound: In Waveland, Miss., Nadine Brown said this year's Fourth of July business was healthy enough that she no longer feared losing C&R's Bar and Grill, an institution with a 40-year history.

"This is the first holiday weekend that I've had since the oil spill that has shown some promise," said Brown, who owns the bar with her husband. "It's hope. It's a glimpse of hope that things are really starting to come back."

And yet many industries are still reeling.

In Louisiana, shrimpers blamed the spill for plummeting prices and for a spike in sea turtle deaths, which they worry will prompt new restrictions on shrimping.

The oyster industry took a double hit: hurt first by fishing bans imposed when the oil flowed into the Gulf, then slammed again when Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal ordered spillways opened on the Mississippi River in hopes that the surge of fresh water would push the oil out. Several operators have threatened to close. At Collins Oyster Co. in Golden Meadow, La., a sign at the shuttered headquarters reads, "Out of business after 90 years because of BP's oil and Gov. Jindal's fresh water."

The charter fishing industry, too, has yet to recover. Weekend anglers who found other pursuits last year may have stuck with them this year, said Chris Moran, who runs Louisiana's Golden Meadow-Fourchon International Tarpon Rodeo. The tournament, which was scrapped last year for the first time in its 63-year history, was back this year, but the turnout was less than Moran had hoped.

Some fishermen, Moran said, are "still scared that any fish they catch is going to have 12 fingers and 15 toes."

And not just in Port Fourchon, where the beach remains closed for oil spill cleanup. In Pensacola, where the white sand beaches look pristine after months of work, Tim Morris, who stopped at his favorite fishing hole at daybreak after working a night shift, admitted that he has the same worry. Flinging a net off a pier in search of mullet, he talked about how his fears have led him to prep his dinner differently, just in case: "I marinate the hell out of it," he said.

The vein of distrust is deep. Local highways are dotted with billboards from lawyers who promise help in pursuing BP settlements. Discontent with BP and the slow claims process overseen by administrator Ken Feinberg is unanimous, and often unprintable.

Louisiana shrimper Dean Blanchard estimates that he lost millions because of the spill and said business was only just now starting to come back. Shrimpers in white boots — "Cajun Reeboks," as they're called here — tromp hourly into his office, some complaining that the yield is down.

"I worked 30 years to get to where I was," said Blanchard, who earned fame during the spill for challenging BP's then-chairman, Tony Hayward, to a fight. "And I don't know they can ever give that back to me. We've been kicked in the chops."

Blanchard says his shrimp is safe; he pointed to a sardonic poster on his office wall that suggests that diners have a choice between shrimp harvested from the Gulf or the Pacific, where, thanks to the tsunami-induced meltdown of the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor in Japan, they could "glow in the dark."

Still, he keeps a careful eye on the take, pulling two shrimp with black spots out of the freezer.

"The government says it's nothing, but I'm 52 and I never seen anything like that," he said.

The skepticism is pervasive.

"I don't think anyone trusts anyone anymore," said Eric Mitchell, 41, a Pensacola physician. "There was always a significant attempt to minimize the damage, and now they tell us it's all supposed to be back to normal. But who knows how much and what is still sitting out there."

Mitchell said he'd only now allowed his young son to play on the beach and swim, and he's still highly suspicious of the cumulative effects of the chemical dispersants used to break up the oil. He won't eat Gulf seafood.

"We had a shrimp boil last week," Mitchell said. "We got the Ruby Reds from Antarctica."

Everywhere, the sense of unease lies very near the surface.

In Alabama, Joe Ragsdale, who spent 44 days skimming oil from the Gulf under contract to BP, can't help wondering whether there will be long-term effects, particularly from the dispersants.

"Some days it was rough out there, and you wonder if the splash getting on you was a problem," said Ragsdale, 52, who's lived by the water all his life. "Nobody knows what the long-term effect is, and ain't nobody can tell you."

"Devastating spill, devastating feelings," says a billboard along Interstate 10, the highway that runs along the coast. The billboard carries a phone number for a help line run by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Ti-Joe Augustin, 61, understands what that means. The oil spill didn't hurt his air conditioning-repair business on Grand Isle, La., but it took a toll on him nonetheless, as he worried about the threat to his island home, where his parents met and where he was born and raised.

Even the capping of the spewing well didn't pull him out of his funk. "I was in denial. I was in depression," said Augustin, who's a volunteer at Our Lady of the Isle Church on Grand Isle, which took the brunt of the spill.

"I'm better now, but I still go through stuff," he said, reluctant to talk much, as he weaved through the pews straightening hymnals for the 11 a.m. service. "I've lived here forever, and that oil, that situation, it'll get to you." His voice trailed off.

Still, it's not difficult to find an upside. On Sunday, the church was packed for the 9 a.m. Mass — standing room only. Parking lots and businesses across the island were crowded.

Cheryl Castello, 43, frolicked in the surf with her 8-month-old grandson, Austin Terry — this year's visit a far cry from last summer's. Then, she and her husband, and their dog, found themselves in a BP decontamination pool after they stepped over an orange anti-oil boom on the beach.

This time, there was no boom and no BP crews, only beachcombers, a bevy of teenagers in bikinis and toddlers making sand castles.

"It's cleaned up and we're back," she said, standing under a blue tarp as Austin grabbed handfuls of the brown beach sand. "People come back. That's what we do down here. It'd take something bigger than BP to take that away."

(Donna Harris of the Sun-Herald in Biloxi, Miss., contributed to this report.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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