Editor's Note: This is part one of a three-day Herald series on the cleanup.
Louisiana fishermen pray their livelihood will return, hoteliers in Alabama wait for the phones to ring, and New Orleans’ finest chefs cook up public relations strategies rather than po’-boys, all because oil has touched their shorelines.
And in Florida, residents, officials and merchants fear the world’s negative perception of the Gulf oil spill has damaged their economy and communities — from the Panhandle, where oil blotches are intermittent for 100 miles, through all the still-pristine beaches down to Key West.
The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill has delivered two blows to the Gulf Coast: the actual presence of oil, and the perception that oil is everywhere. From Louisiana’s oil-polluted marshes to Florida’s sugary-white sands, each region must restore its battered image.
“The damage, it has been done,” said Mike Foster, vice president of marketing for the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau in Alabama. “This is both real damage and damage caused by perception. But we’re not soaking and dripping in oil.”
The nearer the oil, the more ecological damage, the more failing businesses and the more jobs lost. Towns hit hardest are those that, just five years ago, were decimated by Hurricane Katrina. The spill has dealt the fishing industry a devastating blow, oiling more than 600 miles of Gulf shoreline. And the economic damage to the tourism industry is projected at $22.7 billion over the next three years.
For some fishermen, the only choice now is to work for the company that destroyed their livelihood, cleaning up the mess. And in the tourism industry, perception is everything.
“If you’re a traveler sitting in Chicago spending the day watching CNN, frankly your impression might be that oil has covered the entire Gulf Coast,” said Geoff Freeman, senior vice president for the U.S. Travel Association. “I don’t think any community can think it won’t be treated differently by travelers because oil has or hasn’t washed ashore. They’re watching the news, but the complexity of the situation is not understood.”
The beach is hurting
Kristie Taylor was one of those tourists.
She knew her vacation this year to Gulf Shores, Ala., would be different. The Tuscaloosa resident spent many childhood summers at the same beach her parents had their honeymoon. Although she dreaded the oil pollution, she couldn’t stand the thought of skipping a summer there.
Still, she was overcome with sadness when she first stepped onto the beach and saw “puddles and pods” of oil.
“I felt like I was at a funeral,” said Taylor, 32. “It was just this looming feeling that something bad had happened. My 2-year-old daughter kept asking why she couldn’t go in the water. I just kept telling her the beach is hurt, but it’s going to feel better.”
And Taylor plans to visit again next year and the year after — oil or no oil.
“It was still the same wonderful people there, the wonderful food was there, even the waves and sound of the ocean were the same,” Taylor said. “We still believe the beach will come back; we’re cheering on everyone else to go. But it broke my heart to see that.”
In the Florida Panhandle, bookstore owner Dale Julian watches BP subcontractors milling through her town.
Nobody in Apalachicola can relax.
Although oil has not yet touched the famous oyster beds there, residents still fear that any day, oil might come ashore and change everything for the worse.
“I was initially, and remain, utterly appalled, and don’t think we’ll see the end of the fallout during our lifetimes,” said Julian, 59.
Surrealistically, Franklin County still boasts immaculate beaches mobbed with the usual crowd of tourists — but the oil spill out in the Gulf threatens everything the town holds dear.
“It’s a very strange tension between sadness and horror at what’s going on, and the daily routine of good, strong book sales and cheery people who come every year,” she said. “People have been on high alert for three months.
“Frankly, I can’t believe we’re not going to see negative effects.”
Restoring the image
Those in the tourism industry are in full-fledged crisis mode. And transparency is the only path they see to reassure travelers.
The Bradenton-Sarasota area can brag in marketing campaigns that its Florida beaches are clean and open for business. But in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Ala., if there’s oil on the beach, well, then there’s oil on the beach — and the local convention and visitors’ bureau reports that on its web site via a two-minute video shoot.
“We decided very early on that our philosophy and our position was, ‘We are going to tell people what’s going on here regardless,’” Foster said. “Because the greatest thing we have to lose is not a one-night stay or a one-week stay. The greatest thing we stand to lose is credibility. We’re about a 70 percent repeat business, so we cannot afford to tell a misleading story.”
The oil and tar balls coming ashore at Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are intermittent, Foster says. But hoteliers are definitely feeling the pain.
“This time of year, on a normal year, we’re running between 75 to 95 percent occupancy levels,” Foster said. “We’re running just about 50 percent occupancy right now.”
The Alabama Tourism Bureau is also being transparent about any oil that reaches the beaches. And because oil has put double-red flags at some of its beaches — making it illegal to swim in the water — the bureau is building its promotions around the state’s attractions that go beyond the beach.
In its advertising, the bureau highlights the Gulf Coast Zoo, the Gulf Coast Pier, Fort Morgan and the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail.
“We’re fortunate in that we still have all these great attractions for visitors,” spokeswoman Edith Parten said.
In Florida, state tourism officials are grateful that — with the exception of some pockets in the Panhandle — their coast is clean and clear and beaches are open for swimming.
Still, Chris Thompson, chief executive officer of Visit Florida, has serious concerns about the financial dent Florida might endure if tourism drops off. A June survey revealed some travelers feel uneasy about vacationing in The Sunshine State because of the spill.
The survey by YPartnership of 1,300 leisure travelers’ impressions of Florida showed 10 percent were less likely to travel to the state as a result of the oil spill. It’s a small percentage from a small sample of travelers, Thompson acknowledges, but he wonders how many tourists have that same impression.
“Ten percent against a $60 billion tourism economy — that’s a pretty big number,” Thompson said. “That would be on top of any kind of deficits the state has had to deal with from two years of economic downturn.”
It’s 5 a.m. in Chalmette, La., and John Dee Jeffries, pastor at First Baptist Church, is already ministering to fishermen who cannot fish.
With their commercial fishing grounds closed because of oil, many have turned to clean-up work for BP.
For some, it’s the only choice they have to survive.
One fisherman recently lost his boat because he could no longer afford it; a woman who owned an oyster processing plant had to shut it down, Jeffries said.
Jeffries asks about their families, their former employment on the Gulf fishing or shrimping, what they’re doing now — laying boom, picking up dead fish and turtles, or photographing spills.
“They’re living for today, they cannot return to fishing at this point,” he said. “I think there’s an underlying anxiety. Hurricane Katrina was sudden and swift, and what we’ve got transpiring now is very slow.
“There are a lot of question marks in everyone’s mind, a tremendous amount of anxiety, anger, short tempers, effects of stress, people dealing with it day after day, grueling day.”
In Chalmette and nearby New Orleans, the spill is the second disaster residents have faced in five years. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina wiped out entire communities and businesses there, and the famous city has lost a great swath of its population.
Once again, residents find themselves facing a calamity.
“Here in New Orleans, we’re walking a fine line,” said Jennifer Day, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. “For us this is about misperception.”
The biggest hurt for New Orleans has been to its seafood industry. As of last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported 57,539 square miles of federal fishing grounds in the Gulf closed to ensure seafood harvested is wholesome.
NOAA says the public need not worry about seafood it is buying.
But restaurateurs and fishermen are struggling to sell the shrimp, oysters and grouper that diners once found so tasty.
“Due to misperception, people are still thinking you can’t get shrimp po’-boys, that there’s no oysters,” Day said. “A lot of our marketing campaign is getting the New Orleans’ chefs to tell the world, ‘This food is safe, and I would not jeopardize my career by putting food on the table that is going to make people sick.’
“And in New Orleans, chefs are like rock stars.”
Many restaurants and service businesses based on tourism can probably consider this a lost season, says Ahmad Ijaz, director of economic forecasting for the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
“I’m looking at it like a one-season deal,” Ijaz said. “Mississippi and Louisiana got the worst of it; we escaped the worst of it; there is still some oil coming on the beaches, but not like in Louisiana and Mississippi.”
How quickly the Gulf Coast’s economy recovers hinges on the efficiency of the claims process, Ijaz notes.
Shirley Whittle, who owns the Callaway Country Florist shop in Panama City, believes she could file a claim for $35,000 to $45,000 in lost earnings. She used to do 100 to 120 deliveries of fruit baskets to hotels on the beach in the summer; she hasn’t delivered one this season. And she’s been hit with plenty of wedding cancellations.
But Whittle found the BP claims process less than accommodating.
She has names and phone numbers of every bride with which to file a claim. But a BP employee asked if she was married, and when she replied she was, he said, ‘You go home and let your husband take care of it.’”
Whittle, who has been in business 41 years, concluded, “I don’t need to be insulted, it’s not worth the stress, I don’t need it, I won’t do it.”
For some, business booms
In Cortez, hotels and charter boat businesses are reporting a sudden wave of tourists who usually vacation farther north, but want to avoid oil pollution in their traditional spots.
Capt. Kim Ibasfalean, owner of a charter boat business in Cortez, said her bookings are up over last year, and some of the local hotels are up as much as 30 percent.
But no one is celebrating yet.
Those who fish for a living are watching the weather and the waves closely, hoping for the best.
Kim’s husband, Mark Ibasfalean, operates a fishing business that is just beginning to show losses, even though not a single drop of oil has touched the area’s wide beaches.
Commercial fishing vessels that previously bought bait fish from Ibasfalean are buying less now.
What he fears most is the uncertainty of what will happen to all that oil in the Gulf.
“Nobody knows what that will do,” Ibasfalean said. “You’ve got to be optimistic, the bottom line is yes, there’s tourists coming here because they’re not going to the Panhandle. That’s what’s happening for the moment.
“It may not last.”