A Tourist Mecca Fears a Long-Term Oil Smear


GRAND ISLE, La. — They are not selling many fried Snickers bars à la mode these days at the Kickin Chicken restaurant here, located by a wide, sandy beach that is now off limits to swimmers because of the oil spill. So its owners are going after different customers, with the help of a roadside sign: “Disaster Catering Available! Let’s Talk.”

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.

“It’s shifted from a beautiful tropical paradise with people running around in bathing suits with rods and reels, having fun, to feeling more like a coastal town near a military base,” lamented Linda Magri, a real estate broker who rents summer homes and camps on the island. “We’ve got National Guard trucks running up and down.”

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.

“A hurricane comes in one night, wipes you out, and you know you’re dealing with mud and water, and material things,” said Mayor David J. Camardelle. “When you’re dealing with material things, on land, in just a little time everything gets better. You see progress. But this oil, it’s like a monster in the Gulf of Mexico. It comes up on the beach, you get rid of it, and you pray the next morning it won’t come back.”

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.

Expensive flood insurance bills are due for many residents this month. At least one home was put up for sale because of the spill, a broker said, but it was unclear if anyone would buy it now.

The oil has cost the island another cherished tradition. The Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo, a fishing tournament that packs an estimated 20,000 visitors onto the small island at the end of each July, was canceled.

Frank Besson, 61, a native of Grand Isle who runs a daiquiri stand and souvenir shop, said he had missed the rodeo only once, when he was stationed in Vietnam.

“It was the saddest day,” Mr. Besson said.

Fishermen book their rooms for the rodeo a year in advance at the Sand Dollar Motel and Marina. When the rodeo was scrapped, the cancellations poured in, so Butch Gaspard, its owner, rented the whole place to BP and some of the contractors the company hired for the clean-up for the foreseeable future. But his marina is empty.

The contractors staying at Ricky’s Motel and RV Sites have been telling Joe Lamothe, the manager, that they would be likely to need their rooms for at least a year.

But Mr. Lamothe took out a calculator to show that the motel will still be earning less than it would in a normal season. He is renting rooms to the contractors for $800 a month, which nets him less than half of what he would collect if they were going at their usual rate of $65 a day.

But even that kind of shortfall looks good to other local businessmen. Wesley Bland, 33, a builder who advertises all over the island with slogans like “Got Roof?” said that business fell off so abruptly that he had to let several workers go.

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.

Many houses on Grand Isle rest on tall pilings, to protect them from floods. The shade beneath them is a popular spot for escaping the blistering sun.

Sitting under the house he built, Curtis Vizier, 78, who came to the island from an isolated bayou as an infant, showed off some of the huge oyster shells he collected in the bay as a young man, and the ladder he built into a towering oak tree so he could climb up with binoculars to make sure his oyster beds were safe from poachers.

The spill will be adding some unpleasant memories to Mr. Vizier’s later years.

“The oil ruined everything,” he said. “It will be for years to come.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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