Neely Young: Report From The Gulf

On a recent “guy trip” to visit cousins Archie and Scott Griffin near Pensacola, I was able to see up close the damage being done on the Gulf Coast by the BP oil spill. As I completed this column, there was a big storm in the Gulf that threatened to churn the waters so that some of the spilled oil could possibly move around Florida and into the Atlantic and onto the Georgia coast. This was a long shot, but there are lessons to be learned from the Gulf tragedy for those of us in Georgia.

On the plane flying down, my seatmate was a Pensacola native who told me that all the beaches were white and sandy, but the one thing missing is people. People are not visiting the beaches, and it is devastating the local economy. The Gulf Coast has only three months, June, July and August, to capture enough tourist revenue to survive the rest of the year. This year’s season will hurt a lot of people: 40 percent of the economy depends on the tourist season business.

When I arrived at my cousin’s condo on Orange Beach, Ala., we had to pass the famous Flora-Bama Restaurant located on the Florida-Alabama line. Business looked bleak, because there were few cars in the parking lot. However, I noticed many pleasure boats out in the bay, so everything looked normal.

A friend of the Griffins who was staying at the condo, Russ Brown from Montgomery, Ala., informed me that the Gulf was closed off and all the boats out in the bay were not fishing, but were taking part in the clean-up operation. Scott told me that his boat was quarantined, and he would not be able to use it for the rest of the summer.

Russ’s boat was available because it was on the inland waterway, so we soon were out on the water heading for a restaurant named the Pirate’s Cove. It is a local landmark, a down-home “Redneck Riviera” kind of place. It had no air conditioning in 94-degree heat, plywood floors, sail coverings hanging on the walls with signatures and notes written by customers over the years. (“Only Dogs, No People Allowed, Betty and Bill, 1999.”) Dogs were lying around everywhere, and one small pup jumped on our table just as the meal was served. Yet everyone loves this place, and no trip to the region is complete until you visit Pirate’s Cove.

I asked Lucia, our waitress, how business was and she offered more information than I wanted to hear. “We’re down about 70 percent so far, and it ain’t going to get any better. I want to line ’em all up and shoot ‘em,” she said, reflecting the anger that Gulf residents feel. I was not sure who ’em was, but she rattled off a list that included BP Oil, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard and the national media.

The Coast Guard has come in for the most criticism. The mayor of one town had a plan to place booms across the bay coming into his city, but he had to get permission from the Coast Guard. For 21 days the city waited to get permission. On the 22nd day, the oil came into the bay. It wasn’t the local Guard that was the problem, but some pencil-pusher in Washington who let the permission form lie on his desk without taking action. Slow action from Washington has been the target of much of the anger the locals have directed toward our federal government. This sounds like Katrina.

The governor of Louisiana had a plan to put barges across the bay coming into his state, but the federal government and the Coast Guard said no, because they would have to do a three-month environmental impact study before they could give permission – as if having oil spill into the marshes was better than forgoing a bureaucrat’s study.

The owner of Sam’s Hardware and Bait Shop was more resigned to the disaster. “Yes, my business is down.” he said. “But we have been here 30 years and hopefully we will still be here when this is over. But it’s a mess.”

One aspect of the story that has not been told concerns the “gold rush” that has occurred. BP Oil is paying $1,300 a day to anyone who has a boat and will help out with the cleanup effort. What I thought were pleasure boats in the Gulf were part of a convergence of boats from all over the Southern states whose owners had hurried there to cash in on the big payments BP is making to help with the effort.

There has been some anger over this situation as well, as some locals have complained that they were shut out of the process because outsiders were hired ahead of them.

On the inland waterway we found large 50-yard barges that were parked, ready to be filled up with oil from the skimmers out in the Gulf. I interviewed three of the barge operators who told me they were being paid $1,000 a day. The people putting out the booms to try and contain the oil were being paid the most money, they said.

The four of us even thought about signing up for the work. We found a local phone number, but when we called we were referred to another number, then another number. We were finally told they were hiring mostly commercial boats.

One of the saddest things I encountered was the lack of wildlife. It was eerie not to see the birds flying as you normally would. It was a silence and stillness that spoke volumes about what was happening. Let’s hope the birds had gone where they could get food and not been damaged by the oil.

Another sad note is that Orange Beach is known as the Red Snapper Fishing Capital of the Gulf, and it will be years before anyone will be able to fish for red snapper again.

What are the lessons learned from this disaster that I could take back to Georgia and share with our Trend readers?

One day in the future Georgia might have offshore oil rigs. I believe the most important thing is to have a plan of action to put in place quickly if something like this happens again. No one has had a plan even now.

We may need to drill for oil, but the lesson should be to never drill out so far that you have to have a 1,000-foot well that cannot be contained if there is an accident.

There is a great need to reduce our dependence on oil from the Middle East, so it is important to consider drilling, but we would have to be able to respond faster and design a better system to contain the oil in an emergency.

This sounds so basic, yet our federal government has not been able to accomplish this most simple task. I recommend that our state come up with a plan, sooner rather than later.

I also recommend a visit to the Gulf Coast. Don’t be put off by the oil spill. We had a great time.

Categories: Neely Young