Special Reports

Buffett gives northern Gulf Coast shot in arm

GULF SHORES, Ala. — Even as the Army engineers built oil-blocking sands dunes on the sugary shores, this resort town feels like it did in the days before the disaster.

Hotels were booked. There were 90-minute waits at restaurants. And the elusive tourists were here once again, hoping to catch a glimpse of one man who has become a champion, an ambassador, the region’s biggest symbol.

The man? Jimmy Buffett.

Yes, Jimmy Buffett, the laid-back, Hawaiian shirt-wearing entertainer whose songs about boozing and good times have relaxed souls for years, has become the area’s celebrity conscience.

“If you’re born and raised on the Gulf Coast and it’s kind of in you, and you don’t feel anger and rage initially over what’s going on down there, I think you’re a hypocrite,” Buffett told the Associated Press. “That’s the way I felt. Now, what you do with that is a big question.”

Born in Pascagoula Miss., and raised between Mobile and Foley, Ala., Buffett is to the area what Wyclef Jean is to Haiti. And today, his free beach concert — tickets were gobbled up in minutes — is expected to refuel this area’s battered economic engine.

The singer has spoken out about the resilience of the community on national television. He dropped by his sister’s marina, Lulu’s, and played an impromptu concert that caused a traffic jam. The opening of his Pensacola Beach hotel, Margaritaville, on Day 69 of the disaster has been one of the area’s few bright spots. He’s even working on a way to use french fry oil to fuel skimmer boats.

More than a third of the 35,000 tickets for Sunday’s show, which will be shown on Country Music Television, were given to local hotels so they could create package deals and entice tourists. And places have been half-empty all summer are now nearly full.

Sometimes, just by talking to the locals, there are three things that can protect the Gulf from the spill’s impact: booms, barges and Buffett.

“We are going to sell out (this weekend) for the first time because of Jimmy Buffett,” said Charlotte Corn, director of sales at the Holiday Inn Express in Gulf Shores. “It’s been the best thing that’s happened.”

When disaster strikes, it’s not unusual for celebrities to lend a hand. They bring along telethons with morose speeches, harrowing images of destruction and Hollywood beauties answering phone lines.

That sort of response hasn’t been witnessed with the BP oil spill, an event that’s more complex and political than a hurricane or earthquake.

“A lot of people are upset that more celebrities haven’t come to help us for a disaster, in our country,” said Melissa Smith, a 50-year-old technical writer from Pensacola. “But this is different because it’s a man-made disaster. No one caused the earthquake in Haiti.”

It was a serious comment for a woman lounging poolside at the Margaritaville Hotel, which has 162 rooms and a restaurant menu that features “Cheeseburgers in Paradise.”

“But it is also hard to understand what’s happening to us unless you’re from around here,” she said. “Jimmy Buffett grew up around here, so he understands. By doing this concert and building this hotel, he’s really been a saving grace for the beach.”

As she spoke, the Blue Angels practiced stunts in the skies overhead — as they’ve done for decades. Her husband, Steve, remembers looking at the troupe in the past year and seeing the hotel being built in the distance.

When the spill happened, the entire region questioned whether the grand opening would be delayed. It opened anyway. And it’s operating at about 80 percent, even though the start was slow.

“This is a place for optimism and fun and good times,” said Tamara Bladanza, the hotel’s spokeswoman. “They needed the place to open now, more than ever.”