In Orange Beach Alabama, the salt air already carries the hint of spring. And with it, anticipation and anxiety about what the change of season will bring.
Tony Kennon is the mayor of Orange Beach. He fully believes the economic pain will continue.
“We think we could be down 20-30% again this year”, he says, “which would absolutely be a backbreaker…”
The beaches underwent a massive cleanup last year, and BP crews still patrol the sand daily looking for tar balls.
But this tourist town’s economy – its local businesses decimated by holiday cancellations after oil washed ashore - is still in drastic need of repair. “I don’t want to hear them toot their horn about what a good job they did cleaning up”, says Kennon.
“That’s what we expected. Now what we expect now is for them to make my economy whole, because that’s what’s hurting the folks who live here. I want that made right.”
There are so many casualties of the oil spill here. Restaurants, gift shops, and a thriving garden center owned by D’Lee Reeves.
“I just started yelling and screaming and stomping my feet and calling anybody that would listen to say – who was gonna help?” Ms. Reeves told me.
BP did give her $75 thousand in emergency funds. About a third, she claims, of what she needs to cover her losses and reopen business in a new location.
“It’s broke my heart….it’s broke my heart”, she said. “I have had a business like this for 16 years. And this is the first one that I have ever had that failed. And it was through no fault of my own. And it’s just not right.”
That’s a complaint you hear up and down the Gulf coast.
In conversations and town hall meetings, complaints that BP – and attorney Ken Feinberg – who administers BP’s $20 billion compensation fund aren’t doing enough to help local folks. It’s a charge that Feinberg – who has so far doled out $3.5 billion dollars in claims - strongly objects to.
But he is sympathetic to D’Lee Reeves situation. “We may have made some mistakes, says Feinberg. We will reconsider that claim. We will fix it."
The solution to Orange Beach’s woes would appear to lie in how much money they can get from BP. Whether it be to reopen a business – or to advertise that the beaches are open for business, everyone has their hand out and feels they deserve more.
Particularly since BP is back in the black. You’ll find a similar situation in the bayous and back bays south of New Orleans.
Dean Blanchard is the ‘shrimp king’ of Grand Isle, LA. He lost big in the oil spill when the government shut down fishing. He says BP only gave him a third of what he claims he lost.
“I think it’s a joke, Blanchard told me. I lost 3 million and you give me a million and you’re out there bragging how you’re going to make everybody whole?”
‘Making everybody whole’ comes in different forms. Deeper up Barataria Bay from Grand Isle, the issue is oil that was never cleaned up. The oil hangs thick in the marshlands, choking the native grasses that hold the islands together.
It is accelerating an already dramatic loss of land in the area. BP has set aside some test sites to experiment on ways to remove the oil, but so far, there’s no solution.
Billy Nungesser, the outspoken president of Plaquemines Parish, is outraged. “The scientists who go out with them say we’ll do more harm than good”, he told me. “Well, tell that to the birds that are dying…tell that to the land that’s falling off. They (BP) want this thing over….we’ve said that from day one…”
The oil is one problem.. The chemicals used to disperse it are another. In groundbreaking research – Liz Kujawinski – at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution - was able to detect dispersants at far lower concentrations than the EPA. She found they lingered in the water for months - raising questions about whether long-term exposure may be toxic to fish and other marine life.
Dean Blanchard is worried about the lingering perception that Louisiana seafood might not be safe. And it doesn’t help, he says, when late night comics, like Conan O’Brien stage skits of people eating shrimp with oil coming out of their mouths.
Ten months after the disaster, so many people are still hurting here – perhaps none more than the famous Louisiana Oystermen. When Governor Bobby Jindal diverted fresh water from the Mississippi into the marshes to keep them free from oil, it killed most of the oysters.
It wiped out many businesses, including Collins Oysters of Golden Meadow, a family operation that had been around for 90 years. “I just try to take it in stride”, Oysterman Levi Collins told me. “Deep down inside I’m probably real hurt you know – get angry and stuff, but it’s not going to do no good.”
Most oystermen figure they’re shut down for at least 3 years. BP has agreed to extra compensation.
But Byron Encalade – president of the Louisiana Oystermens’ Association says the solution is a targeted program to restore the sensitive oyster beds.. He told me, “We’re not interested in sitting here and letting BP take care of us like children. We want to make sure this money gets used wisely. We want it to be effective and we want to get to the people that’s been damaged the most..”
BP recently claimed that it will take 3 years for the entire Gulf coast region to recover from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – and that its levels of compensation are based on that prediction. Few people I talked to believe that. But here’s a twist. Gulf coast residents aren’t the only ones upset at the compensation program.
BP itself is complaining that Feinberg is giving out far too much money…even though it is back to profitability.