Special Reports

Oil way offshore, but tourists shying away

The skies are clear, beaches cleaner than they’ve been in awhile, the fish are biting, but the tourists are shying away because of a giant blob of oil floating about 30 miles away, and this angers Linda Hornsby, director of the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association.

“I have never seen such a huge disparity between perception and reality, not just here, but in Florida and Alabama,” Hornsby said Friday. “People are canceling, and it’s gorgeous, wonderful here right now. I’m almost speechless. People are panicking, and it’s so many miles away.”

Hornsby blames a deluge of media coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig catastrophe. She’s part of a growing movement of government and business leaders from Louisiana to Florida trying to unring the alarm bell — at least in the minds of summer tourists — that went up 17 days ago, when about 5,000 barrels of oil began spewing into the Gulf.

From Washington to Watercolor, Fla., the message from government leaders appeared to coalesce this week: Don’t panic. In one of the oddest political groupings in recent history, the Obama administration, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in press conferences on Thursday promoted Gulf beaches, golf tournaments and seafood.

But that alarm bell may be impossible to unring for the forseeable future, and environmentalists have accused leaders of trying to “sugarcoat” the impact. The spill and leak is the worst oil disaster since the Exxon Valdez in 1989, the environmental effects of which are still being felt. Barbour and other leaders say this comparison is unfair, but the BP rig is still leaking unchecked, and it’s become painfully clear neither BP nor the government had a sure-fire plan for what to do after such an event a mile below the water near some of the most ecologically sensitive and important marshlands, beaches and fisheries in the world.

On Thursday, oil began to wash into Louisiana’s Chandeleur Islands. While seas and winds are expected to remain relatively calm for the next few days, state leaders have been told oil sheens could be washing onto Mississippi’s barrier islands as early as Sunday.

The company and government are trying to adapt shallow-water containment and protection devices and methods to an unprecedented deepwater blowout. The latest hope to staunch the leak, a giant cofferdam being lowered into the depths Friday, is experimental. Such a device has been used to contain shallow blowouts, but never at 5,000 feet. BP says it hopes to have the contraption working early next week, capturing up to 85 percent of the leak.

And while government and business leaders may be trying to allay fears and bring the summer tourists back to Gulf beaches, many environmentalists are still saying the spill and leak could have a horrible impact on the Gulf ecosystem for years to come.

“It’s just the not knowing what’s going to happen, and not knowing what to do or how to help,” said Danny Pitalo, owner of Gorenflo’s Tackle at Point Cadet Marina in Biloxi. Gorenflo’s, a Biloxi landmark, is an excellent vantage point to gauge maritime wellbeing in the area. And Pitalo notes: “Basically, it’s shut down.”

“The charter boats are shut down,” Pitalo said. “The Chandaleur boats are shut down, and my transient boat traffic I usually get this time of year is shut down. If we could maybe get better reports on stuff, maybe we would know better what to do or not do. But I can tell you, I wouldn’t want to take somebody out on my charter boat and have to be driving through oil with them. That’s not what you want to show them.”

Coast fishermen did get some good news Friday. NOAA changed the boundaries of a no-fishing zone around the spill, which will add another 10 miles of fishing area north of the Mississippi barrier islands, and allow some fishing near oil rigs in federal water to the northeast.

And while many Coast residents have reported being able to smell the spill over the last week, air monitoring at hundreds of sites between Venice, La., and Panama City through Thursday had detected no oil vapors greater than baseline tests in residential areas.

Federal, state and local government leaders in the Gulf are promising to make BP pay for cleanup and reparations. Hornsby said Friday she’s busy gathering numbers of hotel cancellations to help with that effort. She’s frustrated. Coast tourism had just been showing an uptick after a long, hard time since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“First, we were seeing the light and turning the corner after Katrina, then the economy tanked,” Hornsby said. “Then, beginning about March, we were coming out of the economy, and now this.”

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