Oil slick is spoiling Gulf Coast’s comeback year


This was supposed to be the season of recovery.

Recovery from Hurricane Ivan in 2004, which left the high-rise hotels and the rainbow-colored beach bungalows in ruins; from soaring gas prices, from the recession and from the winter season that wasn’t — when near-freezing temperatures kept sun-seekers home.

Instead, the summer of 2010 is shaping up as a season of worry in this idyllic coastal resort, where visitors over the Memorial Day weekend said they had come only because deals from desperate lodging owners were too good to pass up. To a person, visitors said they were sure beaches would be oily messes by high summer.

“Two months is a long time for all that oil to be spilling out. It’s gotta go somewhere,” Brandon Roberts of nearby Fairhope said as he prepared to go scuba diving in the warm water lapping on the wide, white-sand beach that makes Gulf Shores a draw for vacationers from Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.


Since the failure last week of the latest effort to stop oil pouring from BP’s blown-out well off the Louisiana coast, BP has said it could be August before efforts to plug the leak are completed.

In the meantime, scanning the website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has become a requirement for gulf businesses that survive on the summer rental business. It has also been a tool for people weighing whether to take their chances by planning a holiday here. On Monday, NOAA predicted strong onshore winds in the next few days, which could push oil closer to landfall.

It’s not as if Gulf Shores and other coastal areas haven’t had help with their publicity campaigns. President Obama last week urged people to help the Gulf Coast by choosing its still-unaffected beaches as a vacation destination.

“They are safe and they are clean,” he said of the beaches, as governors of Alabama, Louisiana and Florida stood beside him in Grand Isle, La. BP has promised $70 million to gulf states to promote tourism.

But presidential appeals only go so far in the face of uncertainty at a time when the troubled economy makes everyone reluctant to part with money for a holiday that could be tainted by tar on the sand or by waters closed to swimming.

“I understand people save all year round for this. I understand people want the full package,” said Diane Barron, the general manager of Bahama Bob’s, a beachfront cafe and bar. “But we thought this would be the recovery year. We had a great spring break, the economy was coming back, we had a cold winter, and people were ready to get back out.”


Instead, business has been so bad that most nights, Bahama Bob’s has closed early. Memorial Day weekend was a success, but that’s just three days out of a long summer season.

Dan Burnham, who runs a charter fishing company out of Orange Beach, the community next to Gulf Shores, said business was down about 80%. Adding to his concerns was a phone call Monday morning from BP, with which he has contracted to do cleanup work if the oil arrives in nearby waters. BP wanted to know how quickly Burnham could get his boat, Good Times, ready to deploy. He took it as a sign that the need for cleanup may be drawing nearer.

“It worries me, but I’m glad they called because it means at least they’re taking measures to be prepared,” said Burnham, who in May 2009 ran about 20 daylong trips for groups fishing for grouper, red snapper, mackerel and other quarry. This May, he ran “maybe five” trips, Burnham said.

On Monday evening, NOAA expanded slightly the area of the gulf closed to fishing. Though the closure affects only 26% of the gulf’s waters, it includes vast areas off the states east of Louisiana, fueling concerns that the slick is moving in that direction. With predictions of an active hurricane season, which starts Tuesday, the oil’s trajectory looks ever more menacing to people like Marie Curren, who has been following religiously the NOAA updates.

“It’s just like watching a hurricane,” said Curren, the director of marketing for Brett Robinson Vacation Rentals, which handles about 2,000 rental units in Gulf Shores. “You don’t know which path it’s going to take until the last minute.”

Curren should know. Hurricane Ivan in 2004 left Gulf Shores a shambles. Although it wasn’t directly affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the town’s proximity to New Orleans, about a three-hour drive west, cast it in the shadow of that killer storm and kept people away.


Even though Alabama’s beaches so far have been spared the oily sludge tainting about 120 miles of Louisiana’s marshlands, it is suffering from the same public perception that what plagues one part of the Gulf Coast plagues it all, Curren lamented.

Her response has been to blast regular customers with e-mails and photos showing the beaches’ pristine condition, and to respond to wary callers with offers that include money-back guarantees. Find a tar ball or oily splotch at your feet in the sand, she says, and you can go home and be reimbursed for unused vacation days.

Cancellation policies have been dropped or relaxed, as have minimum-stay requirements.

“That was a deal-breaker,” Jonathan Shemper of Hattiesburg, Miss., said of such restrictions as he cooled off in the gentle blue-green waves.

Like several people interviewed on the beach after morning squalls moved off and the temperature neared 90, Shemper said he and his wife, Bianca, waited until the last minute to book this trip with their daughters, Julia, 4, and Micaela, 1½. Like Curren, they had studied Internet tracking of the oil spill, wary of losing precious vacation days to a spoiled coastline.

They feared it could affect Mississippi’s shoreline. “That’s why we wanted to come here. To get here quickly before the oil hit,” Bianca said.

Nearby, Leann Lamberth and Brian Logan, from Atlanta, said they also had waited until the last minute to book their trip. They are planning to do the same before deciding whether to plunk down money for a vacation rental later in the summer.


“They’re hesitant. All of them are waiting,” said Daniel, who seemed to be one of the few full-time Gulf Shores residents on the beach Monday. He didn’t want to give his last name because of concerns that his pessimism would upset the local business where he works. His prediction: Oil will reach Gulf Shores by midsummer. “With the massive amount of oil spilling, it’s inevitable,” he said.

Business owners counter that the shore wildlife and spectacular views still make Gulf Shores a worthwhile destination. Sea turtles lay eggs in the sand. The endangered Alabama beach mouse scurries among the dunes. Beachfront rental homes with names like Seafoam and Sunsation offer broad decks overlooking the sea, a view to be savored even if you can’t go swimming or build sand castles.

On Monday afternoon, most of the driveways beneath those homes were empty. The “vacancy” signs at the hotels and the traffic heading inland warned of an uncertain summer.

“They’re doing a big campaign, but I think people still don’t believe it,” Barron said.