GRAND ISLE, La. – Grand Isle lost its entire tourist season last year because of the BP oil spill. Shrimpers, oystermen, business owners and their workers suffered. Some lost their jobs, and others made a fraction of what they once pulled in.
Now, just a few months shy of the spill’s first anniversary, the once-oily beach is clean and tourists are being urged to come back.
“You could have took the last five Nobel Prize winners and put hem together and tell them, ‘Your only mission is to put Dean Blanchard out of business,’ and they couldn’t have did a better job than BP,” said Dean Blanchard, whose seafood business on Grand Isle is down 85 percent.
Blanchard said BP’s promises to make people whole again continue to fall on deaf ears.
“I can’t find no university in the country to tell me how 38 percent of your money makes you whole,” he said.
Blanchard said he filed a six-month emergency payment claim of $2.4 million.
“And he sent us a check for $923,000. It seems like a lot of money, but my electric bill is about $600,000 a year. So basically what that does is pay my electric bill and water bill for the year,” Blanchard said.
Beyond Blanchard’s problems on land, the problems out on the water continue. James Santiny has been shrimping the Gulf waters since he was 9 years old, and he said right now is the worst he has ever seen.
His latest catch was four buckets of small shrimp after a three-hour drag. That pales in comparison to the 12 to 15 buckets he pulled in pre-oil spill.
“We (are) just not seeing the potential in the shrimp that we usually do,” Santiny said. “(It) could put you in a hole. You know, if you don’t make your expense and everything, it could put you back, far.”
And Santiny said if things don’t turn around soon, he and others like him won’t survive financially.
“To me, if the tourists don’t come back and buy the shrimp, we (are) going to be out of business,” Santiny said.
Jefferson Parish Council President Tom Capella knows Grand Isle cannot handle another lost tourist season.
“The island’s back, but as you see, from the restaurant people to the shrimpers, business is slow. They’re hurting,” Capella said.
But there are reasons to be optimistic. An aerial view of the island shows just how far the beaches have come since last summer, with miles and miles of clean sand.
Some say it’s the best they’ve ever seen the beach, and Yahoo! Travel recently named it one of the top 10 winter beach retreats in America, joining beaches in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, California and Florida.
At the peak of the spill, there were 6,000-7,000 cleanup workers on the beach. A little more than 300 remain. And Mayor David Camardelle hopes they’ll be gone by the end of February, replaced by tourists returning to the island.
“We (are) going to be ready. I can promise you we are (going to) be ready,” Camardelle said. “We need our tourists back. We need everybody to come back in Grand Isle.”
And if the people come back, the money comes back. That bodes well for those who work on the island.
“The summer is really good. It carries you over for the winter time,” said Gina Chiasson, who works at Sarah’s Restaurant. “Last year wasn’t like that. It was really bad.”
That bad year likely will never be forgotten on Grand Isle, nor will the hostility toward BP.
“It was too expensive for BP to pick up the oil. They left the oil here,” Blanchard said. “The oil’s still all around us over here. People are getting sick down here. You know, I think I’m going to see tar balls for the rest of my life coming up on the beach at Grand Isle.”
Jefferson Parish is holding a job training session to help those affected by the spill. The free session is next Wednesday at 11 a.m. at the Grand Isle Community Center.