Vacationers experience Gulf oil crisis up close
Barb Craig and 10 longtime girlfriends from Pekin planned the vacation for more than a year, booked their reservations six months ago, and then spent a week in Gulf Shores, Ala., watching tar balls washing ashore and smelling petroleum in the sea breezes.
The friends found themselves in the middle of a global news story, watching planes, helicopters and boats involved in cleanup of the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
Craig, who works in advertising at the Journal Star newspaper, said a Caterpillar Inc. wheel loader worked sections of the shore each day outside their rented beach house, hauling off large plastic bags of oil.
"We sat in the morning drinking coffee and watching dolphins jumping. It was awesome, but it made us teary-eyed because we knew what was coming," she said.
When the women arrived in Gulf Shores on June 5, 47 days after the Deepwater Horizon rig started hemorrhaging oil into the Gulf of Mexico, there were warnings not to swim in the ocean.
The friends disregarded those admonitions. On one particularly bad day, one of the women used a cardboard pizza box to shovel a path to the water through tar balls that varied in size from an inch to 1 1/2 feet. After swimming, the women had to stand in the shower with a scrub brush and Dawn liquid detergent to clean off their suits and feet.
"If tar was on the beach, we could see it and not step on it. Out in the water, you'd only see the tar on your feet when you got out. It was gross," Craig said. "Crowds were way, way down. It was like our private beach. Just us and the cleanup crew."
One day, the women saw black smoke on the horizon out at sea when BP was attempting to contain the spill by burning the oil. Toward the end of their vacation, there was an oil sheen on the water and the smell of petroleum was strong.
"It was weird -- hard to believe we were in the middle of such a catastrophe. I tried to get a lot of pictures," Craig said. "The cleanup crew could only work 20 minutes on and then 40 minutes off. It was over 100 degrees heat index and they had hats, boots, gloves and long sleeves."
By the time the women left Gulf Shores on June 12, swimming was officially banned.
Craig has visited Gulf Shores more than a dozen times in past years and always found the community abuzz with tourists. On this trip, traffic was light and tourism was down about 50 percent, she estimated.
That worries Gene Hayden, retired retail manager at the Journal Star.
Hayden and his wife bought a condo one mile from the beach in Gulf Shores in 2002 for $92,000. Values in the complex hit $200,000 by 2008 and then dropped to about $125,000.
After Hurricane Katrina, major insurance companies pulled out of the region. Hayden said he had been paying $800 a year in homeowners insurance and, after Katrina, that jumped to $3,000. By dropping some coverage and increasing his deductible, he was able to get his annual premium down to $2,000.
He's worried about business at the golf course, shops and restaurants in the region.
"Their whole year is made (financially) from mid-April through Labor Day. How will they deal with this?" Hayden asked. "You can't sell condos if retail and restaurants are hurt. If retail fails, what happens to the rest of the economy?"
Journal Star writer Clare Howard can be reached at email@example.com.