Gulf residents, businesses say they’re still suffering from BP oil spill effects


As 2010 comes to a close, several Gulf Coast residents and businesses are still suffering both economic and emotional effects of the BP oil spill in the Gulf, representatives of tourism and fishing communities say.

“Families continue to need assistance and businesses are grappling with uncertainties about the future,” said Dan Favre, a spokesman for the Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans-based environmental group that arranged a telephone news conference Tuesday with representatives of several coastal organizations. “After eight months, oil is still here and so are we. The BP disaster continues to have real impacts on real people.”

Spokespeople for the United Houma Nation in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes and Vietnamese-American residents of Bayou La Batre, Ala., said residents are experiencing severe stress from the loss of their livelihood. Many are experiencing serious physical and mental health problems.

“I have seen people picking up aluminum cans to supplement their incomes,” said Daniel Le, a representative of Boat People SOS. “People have sold their furniture, their TVs, so they can buy food and pay their bills and feed their children. People came out in hundreds waiting in line for the food drive which we organized with the Bay Area Food Bank.”

Maryal Mewherter, a spokeswoman for Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing, said indigenous people like the Houma Nation members “were left with an uncertainty about being able to return to work, sell their catch or being able to eat any of the seafood from the Gulf of Mexico.”

The stress is showing up as physical and mental health problems, she said, including headaches, intestinal problems, loss of appetite, depression and anger.

Even along sections of Florida’s Gulf Coast far from the effects of the spill, tourism-dependent businesses have been hard hit, said Keith Overton, chairman of the board of the 10,000-member Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Overton said he’s one of the lucky recipients of damage settlements with Kenneth Feinberg’s independent Gulf Coast Claims Facility, recently being paid $1.4 million for losses incurred by his 700-employee, 800-room Tradewinds Island Resorts on St. Petersburg Beach.

His business was suffering from the national economic downturn at the beginning of 2010, Overton said, but it was the spill that forced him to lay off workers and delay investments in his resort.

“We don’t know how long it’s going to take to restore confidence in people that the Gulf of Mexico is safe,” he said.

Louis Skrmetta, owner of the Ship Island Excursions ferry business to the Gulf Islands National Seashore off the Mississippi coast, has contemplated bankruptcy while waiting for his BP damage claims to be processed.

He said while his business suffered a 60 percent drop this season, he has managed to avoid bankruptcy because of work he has received from BP ferrying cleanup workers to west Ship Island and Port Massachusetts.

“But they continue to find oil every day on the barrier islands,” Skrmetta said, and he said that does not bode well for the future of tourism.

Favre said those kinds of problems faced by Gulf Coast residents aren’t resonating in Washington, as seen by the failure of Congress to create a Gulf Coast Citizens Advisory Council to provide residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas with a voice in oil spill response decision making.

Congress also has failed to approve legislation directing the spending of money from fines against BP and other responsible parties to pay for environmental restoration, he said.

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