On April 20, 2010, areas all along the Gulf Coast, including Dauphin Island and Bayou La Batre, were struck by a single disaster: the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. When the oil finally stopped flowing 87 days later, much had been lost. Eleven oil rig workers were dead; at least 4.9 million barrels of oil had spilled into the Gulf, doing tremendous damage to the environment; and people who depended on the coast to feed their families saw their livelihoods suddenly in question.
Dauphin Island and Bayou La Batre, in particular, were hard hit by the oil spill, and while the first weeks of the disaster brought people together in the common goal of protecting our coastlines, the months since then have shown that the needs — and the hopes — of these two different, yet strikingly similar, communities have not been met.
A renewed approach is required.
Take Bayou La Batre as an example. Unlike other communities along the coast, Bayou La Batre is a fishing community and relies on its local fishing and shipbuilding industries to sustain itself and the families who live there.
It measures its success in pounds of shrimp rather than hotel reservations.
Dauphin Island, on the other hand, is a tourist destination, but to call it just that would be misleading. The island contains several bird sanctuaries and has a world-renowned marine research center and a small marina. It is dotted not with high-rise condominiums, but with beach houses catering to families looking to get away.
In the absence of large tourist industries, Bayou La Batre and Dauphin Island need several things to fully recover from the oil spill.
First, the two communities badly need public perception to change dramatically for the better. Negative misconceptions have dogged both communities, and a broad understanding that our locally caught seafood is completely safe and that our beaches are clean would go a long way in bringing people back to these two areas.
Second, we need the funding and resources necessary to protect our fishing areas and our environment, so that the wildlife that has for so long called these areas home can continue to do so.
Third, we need a way to sustain our workers and our small businesses and ensure they can remain integral parts of our communities in spite of the damage done by the oil spill.
We’re working to make sure that all of these things happen, but we face some challenges.
For instance, though we’re battling problems of perception and a decline in tourism, we have received far too little funding from both the state and BP to help “rebrand” south Mobile County.
Sustaining our workforce and taking care of those in our communities who have been hardest hit have proven to be additional challenges.
Coupled with the severe economic damage to the area, an inefficient claims process has failed to deliver on its promise to take care of people in need of a steady income.
Instead, claims are often rejected in spite of clear documentation and ample need, favoring the larger businesses, industry associations and neighboring communities.
Moving forward, our goal is to help people see Dauphin Island and Bayou La Batre for what they are: two vital communities made up of hard-working families, local seafood and a different, more relaxing take on tourism.
We’ll need help achieving that goal.
Among other things, we’ll need adequate funding, a more responsive claims process and an administration in Montgomery that understands our needs.
That said, if the determination our residents have shown over the past nine months is any indication, we’re confident south Mobile County will make a full recovery.
Jeff Collier is mayor of Dauphin Island and Stan Wright is mayor of Bayou La Batre. Their e-mail addresses, respectively, are firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.