Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Documenting the Gulf Coast

As reported by John Leland for The New York Times 2 June 2010:

MOBILE, Ala. — The beaches were still open; the restaurants were still serving shrimp. Fishermen were still casting for whiting off the white sandy shores. And ads on television still proclaimed the region open for business.

But as the oil slick made its way inexorably here toward the barrier islands at the mouth of Mobile Bay, with forecasts for a swath from Mississippi to the beaches of Pensacola, Fla., sometime this week, the mood was of the last days.

“You guys are our first line of defense,” Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper , a preservation group, told about 50 volunteers gathered in a room filled to capacity. “Your job is to document what we have here that’s beautiful. BP will have to make it right.”

They had come to train as volunteer field observers, taking photographs and notes on the conditions of the shoreline before the oil arrived. Now, suddenly there was an urgency to their preparations. Over the weekend, isolated tar balls had washed ashore on nearby Dauphin Island, interrupting a busy beach holiday. “It’s starting,” Ms. Callaway said. “The first groups today took beautiful pictures of the western shore of Mobile Bay. But there are fish kills everywhere. One of our friends was on Dauphin Island when the tar ball washed up. Her 12-year-old daughter just started crying.”

Until a few days ago, some people here had hoped, perhaps unrealistically, that the winds and currents would move the oil away from Alabama’s coastal islands, where fishing and tourism dominate the local economy.

“I had townspeople calling me and saying it’s not coming here,” said Grace Tyson, who runs Tyson Realty on Dauphin Island, shaking her head. “It’s like with the hurricanes. They’re predicted but then they don’t arrive. People said, ‘Take my condo off the market.’ ”

Business is down by more than 75 percent, she said. And with the latest forecast, she added, “I’d say closer to one hundred.”

The area had gotten a few tar balls in early May but no steady flow. Beaches filled for the Memorial Day weekend.

On the coastal island of Gulf Shores, some residents who had seen tar balls near their property said that their neighbors had told them not to talk about it. Ms. Callaway said that after she had appeared on television to talk about the tar balls on Dauphin Island, she, too, had received angry responses from locals. “I had people telling me, thanks a lot, you killed our tourist season.”

Then, on the eve of the opening of red snapper season, a major event here, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expanded the boundaries of federal waters closed to fishing and the state department of public health closed the oyster beds.

“We have teams in place to clean up all that’s coming in,” said Jeff Collier, the mayor of Dauphin Island. “But this is foreign to us. I worry about our ability to keep on keeping on. I like to think that we will get less than New Orleans, but who knows? It could get that bad.”

Fishermen and businesses have already put in claims with BP and the state for lost revenue, though the big losses are still to come, said Jeanine Stewart, an owner of Burris’ Farmers Market in Loxley, where sales “bottomed out” almost immediately after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon on April 20, but had crept back up since.

“The big thing businesses want to talk about is government supplements or BP claims,” Ms. Stewart said. “They’ve advised all of us to file claims.”

At the market, the television is turned to news, and Ms. Stewart calls people in to watch whenever there is an update on the spill. “It’s that much on our minds,” she said. “We’re still lying in wait. We still have that hope.”

But for Betty Edwards, that hope was dwindling. Mrs. Edwards and her husband have owned homes on Dauphin Island since 1978, and returned even after two were destroyed by Hurricane Frederick and Hurricane Katrina. She said she was still eating local seafood five days a week. “Everyone’s really scared,” she said.

“My mother is sick and I should be with her,” she said. “I said, ‘I’m going to stay here until it’s all closed.’ It could a couple days. But it’s when, not if.”

At the training session for volunteer field observers, Jon DeJean said she felt helpless, in part because she felt BP and government agencies were not telling the whole truth about the spill. “I was angry from the start,” Ms. DeJean said, “but the frustration is growing. For weeks I’ve been feeling powerless and helpless. I feel coming here is at least a step in the right direction. It gives me the feeling of doing something.”

But Tim Helland, a kayak fisherman, acknowledged that there was not much the observers — or anyone — could do.

“We’re going to patrol the beaches, and we’ll know exactly when it comes,” he said. “But it’s still coming. I’m 62. I may not be fishing where I fish ever again.”

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