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Alabama’s Oiled Beach Towns Brace for Big Tourist Season Losses

July 2, 2010 at 7:47 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Much of BP’s cleanup operations in the Gulf of Mexico remained on hold today, as the remnants of Hurricane Alex dissipated over Mexico.

The storm churned up more crude oil, and forced an oily influx onto the beaches and marshes of the Gulf. That led Mississippi to close the last of its waters to commercial and recreational fishing. Fishing is just one of several industries along the Gulf taking a big hit.

“NewsHour” correspondent Tom Bearden returned to the coast of Alabama this week to see what’s happening to small businesses in one city along the beach.

TOM BEARDEN: Just after sunset last night, the heavy equipment began to roll out in Gulf Shores, Alabama, the start of another all-night shift to pick up the oil that has washed ashore from the blown-out BP well.

The conga line of sand-sifting machinery moves slowly, less than a mile per hour, picking up tar balls and larger masses of coagulated crude. It’s not what these machines were designed for. Gulf Shores bought one years ago to gather up cigarette butts, seaweed, and beer bottles.

Mayor Robert Craft says, when the cleanup workers hired by BP began to laboriously shovel up tar by hand, townspeople realized there was a better way.

ROBERT CRAFT, mayor of Gulf Shores, Ala.: After about a half-a-day of watching them use what we consider to be the wrong method, we got out our machine and started demonstrating what we could do there in a much more effective way. And, so, we were able to convince BP that this is the only way you are going to get it cleaned this up in a timely manner. And they were able to — agreed and bought more equipment.

TOM BEARDEN: Ike Williams has been cleaning these beaches for years. BP hired him to run this operation.

IKE WILLIAMS, Gulf Shores Cleanup Supervisor: We have been very successful, probably about 75 percent average tar vs. sand. So, that’s where we showed BP that these were essential in cleaning of the tar.

Everything that we have come up with or they have given us a chance to try, they’re tapping every resource they can to try to achieve or put our beaches back to the way they were.

TOM BEARDEN: This is the foundation of the entire economy around here, the white sand beach that draws people from all over the country. There is no better way to illustrate what’s happening here than to just look at the beach. On a normal Fourth of July weekend, it would be packed. This is not a normal Fourth of July weekend.

Whit Stuckey literally makes his living on the beach. He rents lounge chairs, umbrellas, and beach toys down the road at a resort at Orange Beach. But with the Health Department issuing advisories against swimming, few people want what he’s renting.

WHIT STUCKEY, beach attendant: It is slow. But it’s the 1st of July. Usually, this weekend, we’re pretty much sold out. We have got — I have done $5 today. We’re usually in the thousands of dollars range, getting ready for the Fourth of July. Well, last year, we would have this line from the property line over there to down there.

We would have probably two rows of chairs, maybe three, for the Fourth of July, and just about all of them will be rented out. As of right now, we have got 70 sets out. And I have got one set that’s being rented for one hour. So…

TOM BEARDEN: Chaz Baker is in the same business and in the same boat. He’s one of thousands of Gulf Coast residents who have filed claims with BP for lost income. Some say they were paid quickly, but Baker didn’t have a good experience.

CHAZ BAKER, beach attendant: At the end of every month, that’s what I am going to go is go in there once again and show month by month by month that we are. We are down in sales, which directly affects me. I am a commissioned employee. I work — you know, pretty, if I don’t make that commission, I’m really just not making much of a living. So, without that commission, yes, it is tough.

TOM BEARDEN: Bottom line, you had to fight for what you got?

CHAZ BAKER: I did. I did. I really had to go in there and say, look, I mean, we are going to have to come to a better agreement than this, because they were really offering basically nothing.

TED SCARRITT, owner, Perdido Beach Services: This particular bayou, which is Cotton Bayou, is boomed off.

TOM BEARDEN: Ted Scarritt, who owns the company that Baker and Stuckey work for, says he got some money from BP, but says he is still in trouble.

TED SCARRITT: We have been business for 27 years, and it is our bread and butter. And this was the cherry on the cake.

TOM BEARDEN: He had finally gotten to the point where he could afford his lifelong dream of buying a large catamaran for a charter business. Snorkeling trips, sunset cruises, and dolphin-watching breakfasts are what make it financially possible. The BP disaster put an end to that.

TED SCARRITT: We are shut down. And it is shut down. And we are not able to do any business with regards to Wild Hearts because of the oil. And — and, so — so, right now, that is the way it is.

TOM BEARDEN: The economic situation has clearly gotten worse since the “NewsHour” visited Gulf Shores in may. There are few tourists renting the condos all along the Alabama coast, and the ripple effect of their absence is felt everywhere.

Business at the Gulf Shores Shrimp Basket is down 50 percent.

EDDIE SPENCE, owner, The Shrimp Basket: We sure appreciate you all being down this time of year, with — especially with what is going on with the Gulf.

TOM BEARDEN: Eddie Spence says it’s the same story in all the restaurants he owns near the beach. He says the oil came at the worst possible time.

EDDIE SPENCE: We get, like, 100 days of the season from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and that’s with June or July being our biggest months. And we have got to make it during those 100 days, or you are not going to make it through the winter.

A lot of people are talking about moving away. What is our town going to look like a month from now, six months from now, a year from now? We all have got to make livings, whether we have to move to the Carolinas or up north or Denver or wherever we have got to move to.

TOM BEARDEN: Linda Abston says she could lose her business entirely. She owns a hair salon called Cut N Up.

LINDA ABSTON, owner, Cut N Up: Other than my local clientele, I basically have no business.

TOM BEARDEN: It just — bottom fell out?

LINDA ABSTON: Bottom fell out. And we have no tourists. And thanks to my locals, I have been able to at least keep the doors open.

TOM BEARDEN: How much longer can you do that?

LINDA ABSTON: For about maybe three weeks.

ROBERT CRAFT: This public beach has been here since I was a kid in high school.

TOM BEARDEN: Mayor Craft says that’s why it’s vital the compensation checks keep coming.

ROBERT CRAFT: I have used the term life support, as opposed to a funeral, that if we can get life support for the next really three months and keep these businesses alive, then, once we get beyond that, and some working capital to carry them through the end of the year, which won’t be significant, then we will survive, and we will stand on our own next year, and we should be OK as a community.

But if — if that doesn’t happen, then we are looking at funerals. And they are permanent. And it will not be — we will lose the very nature of who we are.

EDDIE SPENCE: You all doing all right today? Good.

TOM BEARDEN: Spence says what would help most is more tourists.

EDDIE SPENCE: The best way they can help the people all up and down the Gulf Coast now is come stay in a condominium. You can get your condominiums half-price right now, or better than that. Restaurants are very glad to see people. The souvenir shops are glad to see people, the grocery stores, the gas station. Every aspect of every business along the coast here is suffering.

TOM BEARDEN: In the meantime, the conga lines will have to keep crawling down the beach until the well is finally capped and the oil stops coming ashore. For the Alabama Gulf Coast, that day can’t come soon enough.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a special “NewsHour” online forum yesterday, a number of people raised the same concerns about BP’s reimbursement policy that Tom heard in Alabama.

Here’s how BP executive Bob Dudley responded.

ROBERT DUDLEY, president and CEO, BP Gulf Coast Restoration Organization: We’re writing the checks. We have written as of this morning $138 million of checks. So, we are going make good for it. We put aside $20 billion in an escrow account that will be used to pay claims not only just for now, but for as long as the impact is there on your businesses. And that will be not only after we shut the well off, but this cleanup is going to take some time.

So, it’s not a one-time claim. It’s claims that will go through the months where your businesses are impacted. We also realize there’s a seasonality of business down there. And the summer is when — that’s where a lot of the earnings come from, and we’re going to take that into account and try to make people whole.

We’re there for the long term. There’s no attempt to cap this. We haven’t capped the well yet. And, in fact, it’s hard to talk about a limit to claims certainly before we continue to have this spill in the Gulf.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The interview with Bob Dudley was a “NewsHour” collaboration with Google and YouTube. You can watch all of it on our Web site, NewsHour.PBS.org.