Gulf states now worry about restoring their image


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.

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill has delivered two blows to the states that border the Gulf of Mexico: the actual presence of oil, and the perception that oil is everywhere. From Louisiana’s oil-polluted marshes to Florida’s sugary-white sands, most of which remained free of oil’s taint, officials worry that they can’t restore the region’s 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.”

“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.”

For two weeks no oil has flowed into the Gulf since BP engineers managed to seal the Deepwater Horizon well with a containment cap. The amount of oil on the water’s surface has dropped to the point where officials say they are having a hard time finding it. Mississippi has begun scaling back the number of boats assigned to search for oil and has begun hauling in the miles of boom that had been strung along the coast.

Still, officials worry that not everyone will react like Kristie Taylor, 32, a resident of Tuscaloosa, Ala., who vacationed this year at Gulf Shores, Ala., just as she had as a child. Although she dreaded the oil pollution, she couldn’t stand the thought of skipping a summer there.

“I felt like I was at a funeral,” she said. “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.”

Taylor plans to visit again next year and the year after.

“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 Franklin County, Fla., the oil never sullied the beaches, but few there can shake the sense of looming doom that they’ve lived with for more than three months.

“I . . . don’t think we’ll see the end of the fallout during our lifetimes,” said Dale Julian, 59, who owns a bookstore in the town of Apalachicola. Business remained strong throughout the crisis, but Julian can’t believe something worse won’t happen.

“It’s a very strange tension between sadness and horror . . . 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.”

Those in the tourism industry are in full-fledged crisis mode. Estimates place the possible business losses over the next three years because of the oil spill at $22.7 billion.

When the spill was at its worst, the convention and visitors’ bureau in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Ala., determined that the best policy was to tell potential visitors about oil that arrived on the beach. “The greatest thing we have to lose is not a one-night stay or a one-week stay,” said Foster. :”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.”

“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.”

With some beaches off limits because of oil, the Alabama Tourism Bureau began building its promotions around the state’s non-beach attractions, highlighting 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 — the coast remained clean and clear and the beaches open for swimming.

Still, Chris Thompson, chief executive officer of Visit Florida, has serious concerns about the financial dent Florida might endure. A June survey by YPartnership of 1,300 leisure travelers found that 10 percent feel uneasy about vacationing in the Sunshine State because of the 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 had 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.

How soon they might be able to return to their former lives — if they can return to their former lives — is a source of anxiety.

“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,” Jeffries said.

Adding to their worries: everyone knows now that the BP work is coming to a close. On Thursday, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said the so-called vessels of opportunity program that put many fishermen to work skimming for oil now will task them to pick up the miles of boom. But there are no guarantees the program will last past August.

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 uncertainty.

“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.”

Even in areas where business is booming, there are worries.

In Cortez, Fla., 40 miles south of Tampa, hotels and charter boat businesses got a sudden wave of tourists who usually vacation farther north.

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.

What Kim’s husband, Mark Ibasfalean, fears most is the oil that hasn’t come ashore and may be floating thousands of feet below the surface of the Gulf.

“Nobody knows what that will do,” he 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.”

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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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