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With oilspill, the resilience of Mississippi's Gulf is put to the test

BILOXI, MS — The worst natural disaster in U.S. history. The worst economic recession in generations. Now, the worst man-made disaster in U.S. history.

The people of South Mississippi have often been called "resilient" - a reputation hard-earned after Hurricane Camille in 1969, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and repeated often in national media reports. That resilience is being put to the test..

"I had a bank examiner in here the other day, and he asked that same question, 'How are things going?'" longtime Coast banker Chevis Swetman said. "I told him, 'Well, you know, we had Hurricane Katrina in '05. In December '07 the national economic meltdown started, then about 50 days ago, this oil spill started.' I said, 'You know, I'm just looking for the plague of locusts to show up next week.' He said, 'You people are pretty resilient.' I said, 'We are pretty resilient, but the question is, how much more can we take?' I know we'll weather this. But heck, at some point it starts to seem like piling on in a football game."

Casino executive Keith Crosby calls it "another sucker punch." But, he notes, "We're getting used to them, and we're getting pretty good at playing over our head."

Hurricane Katrina showed South Mississippi communities, churches, volunteer agencies, local governments, business leaders, state leaders and congressional leaders have an uncanny ability to work together when push comes to shove. But then, we know hurricanes _ how to prepare, how to dig out and, as Gov. Haley Barbour put it many times in his Yazoo drawl, how to “hitch up our britches and get to work” on recovery.

With massive oil leaks — not so much.

“Nobody really knows who’s in charge,” Harrison County Supervisor Kim Savant said. “I guess ultimately it’s BP. We’re told to send things up the chain of command — I say chain of command but it’s really more just a progression — and BP is supposed to tell us yay or nay. That all works fine, except we don’t get a yay or nay from BP ... It’s unlike anything I have ever been involved in.”

Mississippi got its first warning that oil could hit its shores “in five to seven days” on April 22.

That didn’t happen. Government projections on when and where oil might land appear to be about as effective as BP’s efforts to stop its wellhead from gushing. After at least a half-dozen other projections that oil could land on Mississippi shores within days, Mississippi has had to deal only with “tar balls” and a couple of breakaway patches of oil _ thanks to luck, geography, winds and tides.

Could that luck hold out, with millions of gallons of oil — nobody, apparently, knows how much — floating around in the Gulf? Nobody knows. Barbour has said state leaders are “praying for the best, but preparing for the worst.”

But those preparations have been circumspect.

Miles of boom has been put out across the Gulf. As one BP official said at a recent meeting in Mississippi, “more boom than has ever been deployed in the history of the world.”

Yet all the while most everyone in the know has admitted static boom won’t keep oil out. In the South Louisiana marshland that has been fouled by oil from the disaster, it didn’t appear to even slow it.BP’s initial plan, it appeared, was to let the oil wash ashore, then clean it up. Company officials said as much to South Mississippi government leaders in one of their first confabs, more than a month ago.

The state’s plan, which appears to have totally gelled only in the past couple of weeks, is to patrol for oil miles out from the barrier islands, and try to “skim, scoop, boom and burn” it before it gets close. Or, more accurately, have BP and the Coast Guard do the above-mentioned work.

But on June 1, a 2-mile swath of oil avoided detection and landed on Petit Bois Island in Mississippi. Only two boats, Barbour discovered, were on oil patrol at the time. He demanded more, and reported last week there are now 442 boats working Mississippi waters. Barbour called this “a wake-up call” and a “blessing” that a large amount of oil didn’t foul the shore.

If the battle offshore doesn’t keep the oil off the islands and mainland, the plan is to use boom to steer it away from the most environmentally sensitive areas and let it land on the sand beach, where it can more easily be cleaned.

Many local government leaders haven’t been satisfied with what they’ve heard, plan-wise — from BP, the federal government or state government. And, they have complained, they haven’t been allowed much input into plans.

“Nobody knows the beaches better than we do, and we all have our plans and would like to see them incorporated,” Hancock County Emergency Manager Brian Adam testified at a state Senate hearing on the oil disaster.

Savant said companies have been hawking various oil cleaning and prevention products to local government leaders. Some, he said, appear to show promise, but local leaders have trouble getting anyone in charge to evaluate the products or approve the purchase of materials. He said county government doesn’t want to risk spending large amounts of tax dollars only to find out BP wouldn’t reimburse the expenditures.

Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran a few weeks ago got fed up with this process, and, as she has been known to do, raised a little hell till she got results. She wanted to try a “fabric fencing” type of material designed to absorb oil rather than just boom it off. After much wrangling, BP, state and federal leaders in the oil-disaster joint command approved using the material in Ocean Springs as a test. If testing shows it works, it might be used in other locations.

“We don’t want to wring our hands and stammer around and say ‘Oh, woe is me, who’s in charge?’” Moran said. “If we find something we think will work, we’re just going to do it, and not wait for permission or any knight in shining armor.”

And if BP balks at paying, or Ocean Springs’ economy is substantially hurt by the oil disaster, Moran said, “then we will file a claim.”

The Deepwater Horizon oil leak has at times been a disaster in need of some leadership.

Government officials, from Washington on down, say cleanup and all its costs and financial damages to people and industry are BP’s responsibility.

In natural disasters there is a clear, government-controlled chain of command and a voluminous body of federal and state laws delineating responsibilities, reimbursement to local governments and aid to displaced or out-of-work citizens. With the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP has in some ways taken on the role FEMA would have after a hurricane — the final word on what can be done or purchased by local and state governments. BP officials across the Gulf, and on the Coast, are set up in the same offices as the government responders.

Part of this is because U.S. governments have never dealt with an oil crisis quite like this, and obviously lack expertise and technology to do so. But some congressional leaders and environmentalists have suggested federal and state leaders should have stepped in more, taken charge and provided more oversight of BP’s handling of the disaster.

In Mississippi there has been some debate and criticism over Barbour’s leadership. He has often downplayed the disaster, saying the media is over hyping it and hurting Coast tourism needlessly by “making it sound like the entire Gulf Coast is ankle-deep in oil.” This appeared to be his main message at a time when local government leaders said they badly needed guidance and planning from state government.

Barbour skipped the two meetings in Louisiana, Mr. President, which you held with governors of the other three affected states — most recently earlier this month when Barbour instead went to New York to attend the annual Mississippi Picnic and meet with bond-rating agencies.

Barbour drew national accolades for his leadership after Katrina. He helped not just Mississippi, but Louisiana, secure unprecedented amounts of federal aid from Congress with relatively little red tape attached to it. The Republican Barbour led or helped in recovery planning on every level, listened intently to the needs of Coast governments and communities and drew praise even from some of his harshest critics in Mississippi government.

Democratic state House Speaker Billy McCoy, Barbour’s main political foe in the Legislature, once conceded, “Haley’s a good man to have in a storm.”

But both Barbour and you, Mr. President, have caught some flak for not taking stronger roles in riding herd over BP.

“It appears to me that the state decided at some point it wanted to be in charge of this,” Savant said. “And that’s fine. But let’s do something. My fear is the state wants to be in charge until such time as oil hits our beaches, then they’ll say, OK, Harrison County, that beach is yours to deal with according to a judge’s ruling .“I have a lot of confidence in Haley Barbour. He proved he can do an excellent job after a disaster with Katrina. But I would like to see the people most affected — Harrison, Hancock and Jackson counties — have a little more say. Because in the end, people will be looking at us, their local elected officials, if something goes wrong. If we have to face the heat, let us drive the train. These coastal counties are probably more prepared and experienced in dealing with disasters coming from the water than anybody in Jackson or Washington.”

The extent of the ecological damage the Deepwater Horizon disaster will cause in Mississippi and the Gulf at large is unclear, a source of debate among scientists, environmentalists and politicians. Some experts say fisheries and marine life will be devastated and take years to recover. Others say the warm Gulf waters teeming with microorganisms will deal with even large amounts of light-sweet Louisiana crude rather quickly.

Barbour and the leaders of his two environmental agencies take the latter view. They have said by the time any substantial amounts of oil reach Mississippi waters and shores it will be “weathered, emulsified” and “nontoxic.” Barbour has referred to tar balls on the beach as a minor nuisance that can be found on Gulf beaches even without oil spills, from natural seepage of oil.

But marine life — turtles, birds, fish — is already beginning to wash up dead in fairly large numbers from Louisiana to Florida. Other experts warn the disaster is already killing vast spawning grounds for Gulf seafood and killing gamefish fry in sargassum — floating grass beds that serve as their nesting grounds.

Pass Christian has the second-largest oyster reef in the nation. The Pascagoula River is the last undammed natural waterway in the nation. Mississippi’s bays, inlets and bayous are spawning grounds for numerous species.

As Mississippi’s shrimp season opened this month, large areas of federal, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama waters were closed.

The Gollott family of Biloxi has been catching and processing seafood for generations.

State Sen. Tommy Gollott said his main concern is for the Back Bay of Biloxi and other Coast bays, areas he says must be protected from oil.

“You can go down to the Bay by Oak Street right now and take a scoop net and scoop up small, juvenile shrimp,” Gollott said. “That’s where they are right now.”

Gollott’s cousin, Richard Gollott, runs Golden Gulf Coast Packing Co. and represents the commercial seafood industry on the Commission on Marine Resources. He said the oil in Louisiana waters, even if Mississippi were to be spared serious fouling, will have some impact on Mississippi’s seafood industry and fisheries.

“We are very much in bed with Louisiana on seafood,” Gollott said, “and actually all four states are very tied together on this.” He said, “We are supposed to have a bumper crop of shrimp this year. We get one about every 10 years, and this is supposed to be it.”

On opening day last week, Richard Gollott noted sadly, only 10 to 12 shrimp boats left the docks to fish that morning, compared with the usual 25 to 30.

But he said he’s optimistic the Gulf fisheries will survive and recover.

“A fisherman has to be an optimist at heart,” he said, “or he wouldn’t go fishing.”

Ecological damage may take a while to suss, but economic damage to the tourism and seafood-driven Coast has already begun. The question is, how severe or long-lasting will it be? And will BP pay for everything, make everyone “whole”?

Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway and others say there is some fear BP might file bankruptcy at some point before it pays all cleanup costs and reparations. Holloway said he would like for state or federal leaders to make BP put money into an account or give it to government agencies earmarked for Mississippi.

“BP, so far as I can see, is doing what it said it would do,” Holloway said. “But how long their staying power is, with all the claims and lawsuits being filed, I don’t know.”

The Mississippi Coast through late 2007-early 2008 had been making remarkable strides in its Katrina recovery. This was aided largely by billions of federal Katrina-recovery dollars. But the casino industry, which was up and running after the storm with remarkable speed, also helped carry the area.

Shrimping and oystering, nearly shut down through 2006, had also come back. Oystermen for 2008 landed $7 million worth of the shellfish, nearly equal to the industry’s peak in 2003.

Hotels were making a comeback, reaching 12,000 rooms rebuilt or repaired, compared with 17,000 before Katrina.

Then the full force of the national recession hit, and recovery slowed. Many business leaders were expecting 2010 to be the “breakout” year for the Coast’s economy, especially tourism.

“Prior to the oil spill, we had four weeks in a row of sellout weekends,” said Bob Bennett, owner of Edgewater Inn and president of the state hotel association. “Here comes the oil spill, and then Memorial Day weekend, which should have been a blowout where I sell out for three days, we only sold out one day, and had to discount rates to do that.

“Forty percent of my (small, non-casino hotel) competitors disappeared after Katrina,” Bennett said. “My hotel should be full every night. Last night I had 26 of 65 rooms occupied.”

Hotel and casino-hotel leaders are reporting May, and it appears June, will be at least OK months, but inquiries and bookings are down and they expect to be hurt in July. In a report last week to the Gulf Coast Business Council (GCBC) from tourism-sector leaders, non-casino hotels say inquiries are down 50 percent since the leak started, and average room rates are having to be dropped. The local hotel association projects if oil does come ashore in Mississippi, bookings would drop 50 percent.

The GCBC report concluded: The impact so far has been limited to seafood and deep-water fishing. However, all sectors have felt a drop in interest: fewer inquiries, lower bookings. June may still be a good month, but beginning in July business may fall off. As there is no oil on our shores yet, the biggest problem is the perception that we are soaking in oil and there are health hazards.

Barbour and some Coast business leaders have blamed a drop-off in tourist interest on media coverage of the oil disaster. They say media reports showing the already-devastating oil fouling of marshes in Louisiana make it sound as if the beaches in all four states are covered in oil.

But despite oil and rumors of oil, Bennett said, “We’re gonna make it. This is not the kind of disaster you can’t overcome. All it takes is money. I think the key is going to be advertising. As long as BP doesn’t run out of money, there are ways to ameliorate this situation.”

Palace Casino’s Crosby said, much like after Katrina, “this (casino) industry can pull us through,” and all is not gloom and doom for Coast tourism, even if oil does wash ashore.

Crosby said he doesn’t want to downplay the environmental disaster, but, he noted, the Mississippi Coast is not a heavy beach-and-water tourism area. The mainland shore’s oft-brownish water often has to be explained to tourists _ it’s a sound; the barrier islands block the blue surf from coming in. He said studies have shown 78 percent of visitors are here for casino gambling and golf.

“There’s no oil in the casino,” Crosby said. “There’s no oil in their hotel rooms and it’s not on the golf course . The people who would be affected by this are 3 out of 10, who would be down here to sit on the beach. When you look at it that way, it’s not all gloom and doom. As opposed to Destin, which relies 100 percent on its relationship with the white beaches and blue-green water. We can’t compete on that level. That’s why we added casino gaming here in the first place.

“We’re just going to have to develop a long-term strategy to deal with this, and get to work on it — as our governor would say, hitch up our britches and go to work. We’ve done it before. We have the capacity to work on things like this.

“We’re getting good at it.”

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