About 15 minutes before the scheduled start of the oil spill workshop at Oriole Beach Elementary School Thursday night, I wondered if the school cafeteria was too big for the assembling crowd.
By five minutes after the scheduled 6 p.m. start time, it looked too small.
People were still streaming in, the registration line ran out the door into the hallway, and people were standing along the walls.
And they kept coming.
It reinforced to me a theme we have pushed editorially here at the News Journal, that the economic damage goes far deeper than it appears on the surface.
State Rep. John Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, arranged the workshop because he can see that this thing isn’t over. People are hurting, and many of them see their homes or businesses or financial security slipping away.
Many of those filing in clutched reams of paper in their hands — applications filed with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility that have returned to them little but worry; in some cases not even a yes or a no from the anonymous officials deciding on their futures.
People are still suffering, but their despair has receded from our view — just as the oil that floated in such ugly fashion atop the Gulf of Mexico, and later soiled our beaches, sank below the surface of the water or soaked into the sand, to be covered by new sand brought in on the tide.
And just as erosion will reveal the hidden oil on a beach, or a fisherman’s net will disclose a heretofore hidden deposit of oil on the bay floor, meetings such as this one bring to the surface the human toll.
The intense media scrutiny has faded with the declining visibility of the oil.
Drilling proponents are already cautiously feeling their way to a narrative that says see, it wasn’t so bad.
Drilling opponents fight the next war, citing the results of the federal investigatory commission that says this was no accident, but the logical result of the flawed way industry works, and the laxity of government regulation.
Scientists quietly work their way through the beginning of years of the data gathering, watching and analyzing needed to determine if the oil really did “disappear,” or if it will continue to reappear over the years in unexpected ways.
Fishermen quietly deal with the anxiety of knowing that crucial fish populations did not collapse for years after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, and put to sea on each trip with a silent dread.
The people who market and sell Gulf seafood work aggressively to counter the fears of consumers to whom common sense says all that oil didn’t just disappear, it went somewhere … and wonder if “somewhere” isn’t inside the shrimp and oysters and snapper and mullet that used to so proudly carry the boast “Gulf seafood.”
I stood in the hall as people carried their hurt in through the school doors and into the cafeteria. They were white and black, male and female, young and old, married and single. Some people wore coats; others were in shorts and flip-flops.
I listened to some of the talk as they moved slowly through the registration line.
“We’re barely making it,” one small-business owner told Broxson.
A young beach restaurant worker told a friend that he was having trouble getting claims officials to understand that the tips he earned filtered down from the wait staff, and were not reflected on his pay stub.
The good news, Broxson told the crowd, was that there is still $17 billion in the BP compensation fund, and that there is a lot of help for people waiting for payment on what they believe are just and proper claims.
Outside, parked cars spilled out of the school lot, onto the shoulders of Oriole Beach Road, into the parking lots of nearby businesses and along adjacent streets, as if revealed by a falling tide exposing some hidden secret.