A year after Alabama’s Gulf Shores was visited by the worst accidental oil spill in U.S. history, locals say the coast is now clear. Case closed?
Story and photos by Lisa Singh
Peering through a pair of MacArthur aviator shades, my guide didn’t exactly hide her displeasure. Or as she delicately told me: “I’m about to tell you to shut up.”
Here in Gulf Shores, Alabama, it’s safe to say feelings run a little strong these days. Especially when the conversation turns to what many here are now eager to downplay to visitors: The night, last April, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the coast of nearby Louisiana, killing 11 workers, injuring 17 more, and setting off what would become the largest accidental oil spill in U.S. history.
All these months later, I’m here as part of a group of travel writers, invited by local tourism officials hoping to spread the word that the coast is now clear. As I quickly learn, though, there are questions you ask — and questions you don’t.
We’d arrived that afternoon at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, a 7,000-acre wildlife habitat that stretches five miles along the Alabama shoreline. There to meet us was Frances “Chan” West, a longtime area resident who routinely gives tours of the refuge. Walking barefoot, past shrubs and vegetation she’s known since childhood, West began fielding questions about the spill. That’s when things took a turn.
“There was a whole lot of overreaction,” said West. From the media, she added.
In some sort of Orwellian twist, had the live feed we’d all seen showing crude oil gush into the Gulf of Mexico day after day … after day … for nearly three months straight, simply triggered an “overreaction”?
Standing by the shoreline, with traces of oil still visible against the beach’s much heralded sugar-white sand, I made the mistake of broaching the subject. Before long, West delivered her fateful words then stormed off back to the main road alone.
People are scared. And if you have a heart, you can understand why.
Alabama’s Gulf Shores is home to generations of mom-and-pop shops, with national chains few and far between. It’s also where nearly five million visitors pump more than $2 billion into the local economy every year.
This past summer was supposed to be no different. Better, in fact, after weathering the recent financial collapse.
“We were set to have a massive year … that was greatly hampered by the oil spill,” says Brian Harsany, proprietor of Cobalt Restaurant, a trendy establishment overlooking the Perdido Pass, which opened in 2008.
At the peak of the spill last summer, when oil breached a boom across the road from his place, Harsany’s restaurant was losing between $60,000 to $80,000 a week, he says. Where do things now stand? “We have a great deal of growth to do before we peak at what we could potentially do in sales,” he says simply.
And if there’s any one community you’d want to root for, this is it. This is a place where resilience, and more than a few carpe diem stories, come to life with nearly everyone you talk to.
People like “Captain” Skip Beebe, who left behind a clock-repair business out west, bought a boat one day, then set sail, eventually reaching Alabama’s Gulf Shores where he’s led nature cruise expeditions for more than 15 years now. Or David Worthington, who survived a near-fatal car crash at the age of 19, had a “life-affirming wake-up call,” and now runs the number one rated bed and breakfast in the state. Then there’s Mike Wallace — “Chef Mike,” as he’s known — who lost both parents by the time he was 13 yet went on to graduate top of his class at the Culinary Institute of America, and now serves up mouth-watering dishes at the area’s Grand Hotel Marriott Resort.
With that resilience also comes a willful insistence to just move on. Even if it means, in many cases, speaking in convenient half-truths. Plus, your share of clichéd potshots at “The Media.”
Oil spill “not that bad”
So, how bad are things, really?
Just as nearly every business owner and their brother puts a big fat circle around April 20th as the deadline to file damage claims in federal court against companies tied to the oil spill — and just as Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley says, “Alabama was hardest hit of all the Gulf Coast states by last year’s BP oil spill” — tourism officials are feeding travelers this more palatable line: The oil spill wasn’t that bad.
As Orange Beach Coastal Resources Manager Phillip West, tells me, “A lot of the press want to see devastation or hear a sob story.”
Meanwhile, over at Dauphin Island Sea Lab, a local marine research facility, any possible long-term effects of the spill are being studied in part thanks to a $5 million grant from BP. In case you’re wondering about impartiality, the lab’s executive director, Dr. George Crozier has this to say: “Nothing would make me happier than to screw them [BP] with their own money.”
So far, Crozier’s hard-hitting findings include this interesting take: Every year, some 17 million gallons of crude oil naturally leak from the bottom of the ocean floor into the Gulf of Mexico. So, what’s an extra, say, 200 million gallons of “light, sweet Louisiana crude”?
“It’s just carbon,” says Crozier, by phone. “For the bacterial community in the Gulf, this material was like doughnuts.”
Gulf Shores today: What lies beneath?
Walking along Alabama’s beaches, you want to believe that everything is now OK. You want to believe it for the sake of the people not just here but all along the coast, from Panama City, Fla., all the way down into Louisiana.
And in many ways, this stretch of coastline remains an attractive getaway, topped by some pretty sweet hotel deals nowadays. With the exception of historic and wildlife refuge centers such as Bon Secour, where a deep clean was deemed too disruptive to the habitat (a conclusion backed by the government’s recent OSAT-2 report), all amenity beaches have been cleaned, the sand sifted for months on end. You’d be hard-pressed to find a cigarette butt. Or beer can. Every once in a while, you still spot a tar ball, typically the size of a quarter, but that’s about it.
The locals, meanwhile, tell you: The seafood here is the most tested in the world. You hear that quite a bit, actually.
Still, good luck getting anyone from the state’s office to go on record. The closest I got was Grant Brown, Gulf Shores Director of Recreation and Cultural Resources.
So, who exactly is doing the testing? I asked.
Brown had to think about that a minute.
“I just googled ‘seafood safety,’” he said by phone, after a moment’s silence.
For the record, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), along with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has been testing and retesting Gulf seafood. So far, test results have shown the seafood is not contaminated with oil or dispersant.
And yet, the questions that lay heavy over the Gulf these days have less to do with the quality of today’s seafood — or even with how many tar balls you can still spot — and more to do with the evidence of things unseen, of how this area’s delicate, intertwined food web, which stretches well beyond Alabama into more afflicted areas like Louisiana’s marshes, may react a year or two or three down the line.
Already, that question is growing. Over the past two months, dead baby dolphins have been found across 200 miles of beach. Researchers say it’s too early to link those deaths to the spill, that cold water shock from last winter may be the culprit. But even Crozier — the oil-to-doughnuts analogy guy — has his doubts.
While he buys the winter cold snap theory, Crozier tells me, “I frankly expect the oil spill had a factor.”
It’s not just dolphins at issue, either. Start pondering the Gulf of Mexico — and the vast marine life that inhabits its 600,000 square miles of ocean — and all of a sudden you start to consider things you never thought of before.
Things with weird names like sargassum — a “gulf weed” that serves as home to baby tuna, wahoo, and billfish, as well as thousands of other species. At the height of the spill, clumps of sargassum, choked by oil, washed up on Alabama’s Gulf Shore beaches. There’s now more than a little question in the scientific community about the fate of this vegetation, which is considered one of the most critical offshore habitats in the Gulf of Mexico.
Then there’s menhaden, known as “the most important fish in the sea.” It serves as a primary source of food for marine mammals and other larger fish. Even Crozier concedes, “We don’t know how [the menhaden population] will look in three to five years.” Ditto for oysters, which lack the ability to adequately break down polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a toxin that’s been reported in higher levels since the spill. Then there’s plankton…
It’s those little bitty things — not just the whiteness of the beaches, stripped sparkling clean in a bid to show us everything’s now just fine — that may tell the true story of the oil spill’s ultimate toll.
But one year later, we’re not likely to have that conversation anytime soon. Because, you know: There was a “whole lot of overreaction.” From the media.
Top photo: Clean-up crews like this one at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge were a familiar scene in the months following the BP oil spill. A year later, clean-up efforts continue at the refuge.
Guest writer, Lisa Singh, lives in Washington, D.C. and has previously written for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, National Review Online, as well as numerous other newspapers and magazines.