Many Gulf Businesses and Communities Won’t Fully Recover from Oil Spill’s Impacts

The news for gulf coast residents and businesses continues to get worse, as BP’s broken oil well continues to gush.  It is now becoming clear that many communities will face unprecedented damage to their social and economic fabrics. Some of the most direct and dramatic impacts will involve lost tourism and damage to the fishing industry.  The oily gulf will also permanently damage whole ways of life and leave many area residents drifting without a life jacket. 
Click below to learn about these significant impacts.

The BP Oil Spill Makes Landfall in Florida
By Michael Peltier (Time) / Pensacola Beach / Jun. 27, 2010

For weeks, the residents of Florida’s northwest Panhandle had clung to a belief that the BP oil spill devastating the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama would bypass their famous ivory-white beaches. Until now, it had: despite an intermittent spitting of tar balls and the encroachment of a thin petro-sheen on the horizon, charitable winds and currents kept the real mess from washing ashore and threatening the Panhandle’s critical summer season — as well as Florida’s $60 billion tourism industry.

But the Sunshine State’s luck turned to muck this week when a mat of oil, weathered but still thicker than a sheen, began to blanket popular Pensacola Beach, prompting Florida’s first spill-related beach closures. Thursday evening, saucer-size crude patties and large oil puddles still pockmarked the sand up and down the shore. The area beaches reopened Friday morning after the filth was adequately cleared, but the psychological as well as physical damage was done.  …

The truth is that the Panhandle’s sails were already drooping. Mere fear of the spill had cut deeply into the area’s tourist bookings, 90% of which are usually made for the summer months. The bumper-to-bumper traffic which this time of year normally clogs Pensacola Beach’s Via de Luna, a tourist Mecca, is uncharacteristically manageable.  …

Further inland, where many of the workers who clean the rooms, pump the gas and wait the tables this time of year reside, food stamp allocations are up almost 20% in just the past 60 days. So is unemployment in the region, which is now higher than the statewide rate of almost 12%. State social services officials are talking about an increase in domestic abuse, child neglect and other economy-related ills. “These people are scared, they’re worried, they’re frustrated,” says Phil Wieczynski, a Florida environmental official who visited with some 400 residents in nearby Port St. Joe this week.  …

Along with the normal summer activities, like concerts and art shows, local business leaders are also promoting the appearance next week of a psychologist who treated Alaskans after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. His topic: how to handle the stress brought on by weeks and weeks of relentless anxiety.

For small Florida towns, oil spill stress edges out serenity
By LAURA FIGUEROA Jun. 20, 2010

Along the Panhandle’s seaside villages and towns, serenity has given way to stress, ever since tar balls from the Deepwater Horizon spill started to speckle area beaches, and globs of oil began to seep into Pensacola’s waterways.  Now communities off the beaten path find themselves taking matters into their own hands – coordinating booming plans, haggling with state and federal officials to pay more attention, even tapping into county reserves to pay for workers and equipment until BP reimburses them.

Walton County – in the center of the Panhandle about halfway between Pensacola and Tallahassee and home to 26 miles of beaches and 50,000 residents – has had to dip into emergency funds intended for hurricane relief to cover costs.  The county went back and forth with state and federal environmental officials for more than a month to get approval for a county-financed $500,000 plan to protect its coastal dune lakes – a rare ecosystem where the freshwater lakes and the salt water of the Gulf meet. …

Anger reached a boiling point last week in Okaloosa County, when nearly 100 locals packed Destin City Hall for an emergency meeting of the City Council and County Commission.  Frustrated by the lack of response from state and federal agencies, the County Commission voted to give its emergency-management staff full authority to protect the county’s waterways by “whatever means necessary” – even if that means going over the heads of the Coast Guard and BP, which must sign off on protection plans.

For fishermen the Gulf’s emerald waters are not only the lifeline that pump tourist dollars into the area but are also part of their way of life. The pristine sea and sand are the backdrop for nighttime bonfires and community picnics. …

Mention of tar balls and oil spills elicit smirks – it’s the type of thing the locals try not to dwell upon too much. Boats are just that, boats – not “vessels of opportunity,” as BP calls those helping with the cleanup – and seashells, not tar balls, are what children grab and dump into plastic sand buckets.  “We prefer to stay optimistic and keep those worries in the back of our head,” said Andrew Twitty, the store’s cashier.

Oil spill takes toll on tourism on Gulf Coast
By Charisse Jones and Rick Jervis, USA TODAY

Vacationers are starting to steer clear of the Gulf Coast. The worst oil spill in U.S. history, which has endangered wildlife and stymied the fishing and oil trades so vital to the region’s economy, now is threatening the multibillion-dollar tourism industry as wary visitors cancel trips or plan vacations to places where they don’t have to worry about oil coming ashore. …

A barrage of news reports showing marine life coated with oil and workers scouring the shoreline in spots such as Perdido Key has made beachgoers wary. Lodging owners from Gulf Shores, Ala., to Fort Walton Beach, Fla., say bookings are down, with some seeing a particularly steep drop in reservations for July and August. Charter boat guides across Florida are seeing cancellations and fielding fewer reservations.

And in Grand Isle, LA where the population normally grows from roughly 1,500 to more than 10,000 during the summer, locals count only about 100 tourists. The local camps and motels are filled instead with contract workers and members of the military, here to help with the spill cleanup effort.  “It’s taken our livelihood from us,” says Josie Cheramie, head of the Grand Isle Tourist Commission. “If you don’t have tourists and you don’t have fishing, what are you going to have?” …

For those who rely on tourism for their livelihoods, the spill couldn’t have come at a worse time. Summer is prime tourist season for communities dotting the Gulf. Louisiana saw $1.36 billion of its more than $8 billion in tourism dollars generated by its Gulf region last year. Alabama’s beaches produced 25% of the $9.2 billion in tourism dollars reaped by the state in 2009. And of the 19 million visitors who flocked to Mississippi July 2008 through June 2009, 5.5 million traveled to the state’s three coastal counties. …

Some vacationers who would have headed to the coast say they’re planning trips to other parts of the South, such as North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Arizona, the Caribbean and Europe also are alternative destinations, travel watchers and planners say. …

A looming problem for the Gulf’s tourism industry, says travel agent Fleetwood, is that travelers like Dew who venture to new places may decide to keep going there — and not to the Gulf Coast — in subsequent years.  “The repercussions could go on for years,” Fleetwood says. “When you lose groups or vacationers, they try some place else and then they like the other thing just as well or better. This is a particularly fragile time for the hotel industry … and in the area affected, it may be the final straw.” …

Watching the usual flood of tourists slow to a trickle is particularly frustrating for boat guides and business owners gazing out at clear waters.  “We were just beginning to recover from Katrina, and here we are again,” says Mary McLaurin, 58, a store owner in Bay St. Louis, Miss., where oil had not come ashore but tourism is still down 10% from last year. …

Restaurants also are struggling. Amy Martin, whose family firm, McGuire’s, owns four eateries in the Pensacola area, says the number of customers is down 50% in June compared with last year, while sales have dropped 25%. “It’s worse and worse every day,” she says.

Celebrities, local businesses and tourism officials are pitching in to try to woo reluctant travelers. Hotels are offering steep discounts or guarantees that they’ll give guests refunds or credits if oil appears during their stay. Singer Jimmy Buffett, an Alabama native who’s opening a hotel in Pensacola this summer, will host a free concert in Gulf Shores on July 1 to promote the coast.

State tourism directors in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, which each received $15 million in compensation for lost business from BP, along with Florida, which received $25 million, say they’ll use much of the money for advertising campaigns aimed at allaying vacationers’ fears. …

Some tourism and leisure business owners say they’ll file compensation claims for a share of the $20 billion that BP is setting aside in a fund for victims of the spill that will be run by Kenneth Feinberg, the White House’s “pay czar.” Some who’ve already filed claims complain that the process so far, as administered by people hired by BP, has been difficult, with ever-changing requirements for multiple documents. Even if claims are handled better, some fear compensation won’t cover losses.

A Tourist Mecca Fears a Long-Term Oil Smear
By MICHAEL COOPER June 11, 2010 – NY Times

Grand Isle, a normally picturesque seven-mile stretch of barrier beach off the Louisiana coast, is slowly waking up to a grim reality: the impact of the April 20 spill will not be measured in months, even if BP manages by fall to plug the well that is gushing oil 50 miles off the coast.

It is likely to be measured in years of oil-streaked beaches and marshes, of plummeting property values in a maritime community suddenly cut off from the water, of teams of hazmat-suited workers on beaches lined with orange booms, and cleanup crews in tourist motels. …

Like many islanders, Patrick Shay can hardly bear to look at the beach in its current condition. He has transformed his family’s front yard into a memorial for all the rites of summer that have been lost to the oil spill.  Mr. Shay planted 101 white crosses on his lawn, making it look like a national cemetery, and each cross is labeled for a loss: Brown Pelican. The Beach. Fishing. Riding My Golf Cart. Playing Board Games.  “This is our new way of life,” said Mr. Shay, 43, who has a seafood business near New Orleans and comes to his beach cottage here often with his wife and son.

Grand Isle has undergone huge transformations before. Over the last 300 years it has been home to pirates and smugglers, sugar plantations and several grand hotels that were wiped out by the hurricane of 1893. It was the setting of Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel, “The Awakening.” Now most islanders make their living from fishing, tourism, or the oil industry, which have all been imperiled by the oil spill.  More recently it had to rebuild from Hurricane Katrina. Some people here are wondering aloud if the spill is worse. …

Oil first hit the shore just before Memorial Day, shutting beaches just when an influx of tourists was expected to triple the population of this small island, which has about 1,200 year-round residents. Since then, President Obama has visited twice. Now the mayor is hoping to block the oil from entering the delicate bay behind the island with barges and rocks. Many here pray it works. …

Kickin Chicken sold only two of the 12 cases of chicken it bought for Memorial Day. The restaurants here are being hit especially hard: BP has been using off-island caterers to feed the workers, so they do not have much reason to venture to local restaurants.

And there have been tensions between islanders and the cleanup workers, who are bused in from elsewhere. Most of the islanders are white; many of the workers are black. Mayor Camardelle said that he ran one contractor off the island for denigrating its residents.

Gulf vacationers wait last-minute or go elsewhere.  Some vacationers wait until last minute, some change plans altogether.  By Beth J. Harpaz – June 14, 2010 – MSNBC

George Govignon and his family usually vacation each summer on the Gulf, “somewhere between Destin and Panama City” in Florida.  But this year, Govignon, his wife, two kids and in-laws are heading to Myrtle Beach, S.C.  “The biggest thing was fear of tarballs,” said Govignon, a lawyer from Calhoun, Ga. “We figured we’d be better off on the Atlantic Coast.”

Govignon is among thousands of vacationers changing plans because of the oil spill. Some are heading to favorite beaches earlier than usual, worried that oil may wash up later in the season. Some are booking last-minute to make sure beaches are still OK. But others are taking no chances on a forecast like “sunny with a chance of tarballs,” so they’re going elsewhere, from Cape Cod to Costa Rica. …

Tourism is the No. 1 industry in Florida and 94 percent of tourists are repeat visitors, so long-term relationships with guests matter, Torian said. Her agency has added online features at VisitFlorida.com/FloridaLive with links to beach webcams, daily videos and Twitter feeds “so folks can see what’s going on in those communities.”

In Gulf Shores, Ala., “the parking lots look more like October instead of June,” said Lee Sentell, a spokesman for Alabama Tourism, a state agency. “Since the oil arrived, the reservations have slowed dramatically.”

Officials in Baldwin County, which includes Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, “fear that they are facing a billion-dollar loss in tourism revenue this season,” or nearly half of the county’s $2.3 billion tourism business, Sentell said. …

Travelers worried about unaffected areas, too.  Genevieve Shaw Brown, senior editor of Travelocity, said the Web site is understandably “seeing cancellations” on the northern Gulf, but what’s more disturbing are “queries from customers worried about vacation plans that will see little or no impact, like Orlando.”

“People don’t necessarily have a handle on geography,” she said. “We don’t want this to turn to a worse situation, with people worried about trips to places that are not affected.”

Community impacts of the Gulf Coast BP oil spill
by Michael Herz – June 9th, 2010

While in the Gulf, we visited diverse fishing communities-Vietnamese, Native American, black, Cajun and white-members of which all expressed the same concerns: How will we make a living, feed our families, meet our boat and house payments and will we ever be able to fish again? The beginnings of this tragedy were evident in the meetings we had with fishermen, restaurant owners and community activists throughout the region, shrimpers, oystermen and other Gulf fishermen who produce as much as one-third of America’s seafood. In Louisiana alone, 27,000 people were employed in the seafood industry, and throughout the region tourism is a giant economic engine that employs many whose future will be affected by the spill. Although it is too early to begin calculating the economic, environmental, social and community damage from this crisis, it is safe to assume that the impacts will be devastating and very long lasting,

Oil spills wreak environmental and social havoc over long periods of time. What is happening in the Gulf is not just about oil. There are lessons to be learned about communities and their relationship with the natural resources they depend on.

There was widespread anger at BP and the government, not only because of the spilled oil, but also for the manner in which people felt that BP had taken advantage by offering only minimal salaries to responders and small payments for use of boats as well as their apparent disregard for public health consequences of contact with oil and its fumes by failing to require or offer protective clothing and respirators for cleanup workers. In some communities, like the Vietnamese, emotions were especially heated over the fact that the oil cleanup pay offered for day labor and boat day charters was often half the rate for English-speakers, likely because of insensitivity to the need for translators.

Job loss, stress-related public health and mental health impacts from this spill are to be anticipated.  In the smaller Exxon Valdez spill, increases in drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence appeared within the first year. Six years after that spill, a survey indicated 50-65 percent of fishermen still displayed medical and emotional problems, and more than 40 percent demonstrated symptoms of severe depression. …

Oil spills wreak environmental and social havoc over long periods of time. What is happening in the Gulf is not just about oil. There are lessons to be learned about communities and their relationship with the natural resources they depend on. In the few weeks since my return, the Gulf BP oil spill has become the largest in this nation’s history and continues to grow in breadth, depth and impacts. Each day we are confronted with media coverage of oiled birds, coastal wetlands, beaches and aggrieved local politicians, but little about the personal and community impacts. While it may be too soon to be witnessing widespread social disarray, it will undoubtedly appear.

Has BP oil spill canceled summer on the Gulf Coast?
By Patrik Jonsson, June 23, 2010 – Christian Science Monitor

Cancellations rates have reached 80 percent at vacation properties along some parts of the Gulf Coast, including Pensacola Beach, due to the BP oil spill. Summer just isn’t the same if you can’t go in the water, tourists say.

Santa Rosa Island, the home of Pensacola Beach, is known as the “Las Vegas of Beach Weddings,” but 65 percent of planned weddings on this historic island have been scrapped this summer as the Gulf oil spill begins to sully the beaches on a larger scale.

Brides-to-be throwing out plans that often take more than a year to prepare because of the oil is emblematic of a stunning fact that many Gulf Coasters are struggling to understand after the solstice:  Summer as they know it is effectively canceled. …

The beaches and the cooling waters of the Gulf are the essence of summer for the perhaps 20 million tourists who flock there every summer. With some upscale vacation properties claiming they’re seeing 80 percent cancellation rates, the economic effect is “immeasurable at this point,” says Florida State University tourism expert Mark Bonn.

A conservative 50 percent cancellation rate estimate means 10 million won’t summer on the Gulf – a disaster for Gulf resorts, condo owners, beach rental managers, and employees.  Moreover, tourism experts say cancellation numbers are likely to rise as the oil begins to have a greater impact on places like Pensacola Beach, where oil relief workers far outnumbered tourists Wednesday.  …

“In today’s consumer mindset, safety is paramount, and tourists are answering the question of how safe it is to get into the water with their wallets at this point,” says Mark Bonn, a tourism expert at Florida State University. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

While short-term tourism losses are significant, officials here worry about what the break in the summer routine will do to families who have been making the journey to the beach for generations. Corporate and conference business is also a big question mark, says Mr. Bonn.

Emotions – and tears – often overtake residents as they try to grasp the breadth of ecological and economic damage by the unabated wellhead deep beneath the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion.  “Our beaches are sacred,” explains Tom Campanella, who sits on the Santa Rosa Island Authority.

Latest Casualty of the BP Spill: Strip Clubs
Posted By Brian Merchant On June 28, 2010

Lest you think the economic damage from the BP spill be limited to the seafood trade, tourism, and such industries directly dependent on an un-oiled Gulf of Mexico, we turn to one of the more unlikely institutions that’s seen its business dry up in the wake of the disaster: Strip clubs.  The Herald Sun reports:

“An unlikely company has filed a claim for compensation regarding the disaster – a New Orleans strip club. The owners of The Mimosa Dancing Girls, located on the edge of New Orleans, claimed that the spill was bad for business as the fishermen who usually frequented the club cannot afford to spend money there.” …

Obviously, the impact of a disaster that puts entire industries out of commission is going to have a serious ripple effect — any business that previously relied on workers in the seafood industry is going to have a tough time, needless to say. And though many make the argument that some of these fishermen are getting paid by BP for doing cleanup work, it’s reasonable to assume that many will be saving that money, knowing that when BP no longer requires their services for cleanup, they may find themselves in dire financial straits.

Which is why it makes sense that many of the claims being filed now are not from fishermen, and that other industries may actually be getting hit harder right now: “officials at BP’s New Orleans claims centre said the bulk of claimants were no longer fishermen … As well as strip joint owners, restaurant waitresses, dock workers, plumbers and electricians also came to the centre, saying their livelihoods were severely hit,” the Sun reports.

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