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Gulf tourists worry about spillover from 'ground zero'

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 5, 2010; 6:04 PM

GULFPORT, MISS. -- They were all on board, the locals and the out-of-towners, the environmentalists and the oil workers, the too-young-to-care and the old-enough-to-be-angry, the optimists and the fatalists -- chattering, worrying, speculating as the 105-foot boat cleaved its way to West Ship Island, 11 miles into the Mississippi Sound, 40 miles north of what people have started calling "ground zero."

They wondered where the oil is, if it was under the boat, if it would be at the beach they'd reach within the hour. Saturday morning the Gulf Islander, on its first pleasure cruise of the day, was a vessel of summery paranoia.

"I'm surprised they're doing this," said Amber Cornelius, 19, a waitress in Denham, Miss., who sat with three friends from college on the port side of the boat, operated out of Gulfport by Ship Island Excursions. "I called every day to see if they were finding oil on the island."

Before school let out for the summer, she and her friends weren't talking about the oil. Now they -- and many others -- have canceled beach and fishing trips because they fear what could wash up over the next couple months. This caution is aggravating an already stumbling charter-boat economy in Mississippi, where vessels normally ferry passengers from cluttered, developed shorelines to deeper, wide-open fishing waters and pristine barrier islands, which are living up to their names. Oil has washed up on the long, thin wisps of land out near the border between state and federal waters.

Even though West Ship Island remains open and mostly pristine, the Gulf Islander (capacity: 300) took only 30 to 40 people each day during this past week. The boat Saturday took 170 people when normally two boats would have carried 400 on the same weekend trip.

"Katrina is nothing compared to this," said Louis Skrmetta, operations manager for Ship Island Excursions, which his grandfather founded in 1926 and for which his parents, wife, two sons, two brothers and cousins work. "At least after Katrina we had clean water and seafood to eat. We're losing a whole way of life down here."

After several years of rising passenger numbers following a meager post-Katrina summer in 2006, the storied family operation had hoped to climb out of debt this year. With business less than a third of what it should be, Skrmetta foresees selling of his three boats -- the one named after his grandfather Pete -- and urging his sons to complete their college degrees so they're ready for employment elsewhere.

Mississippi's charter boat businesses normally injects $8 million a year into the state's three coastline counties, according to a post-Katrina study by Mississippi State University, but closed federal waters and general paranoia appear to be slowly paralyzing the industry.

"The future is very, very dim," said Tom Becker, president of the Mississippi Charter Boat Captains Association, who says many of his 57 members are sitting idle, unable to find jobs, and estimates that his own small business has missed out on $40,000 of income since the oil rig blew on April 20. "I should've been out today, but [customers] wanted to do snapper fishing, and they're in deeper waters that are closed. People are canceling their vacations and going someplace else, just in case the oil hits the beach and shuts it down."

On the Gulf Islander's outbound trip, passengers were happy to squeeze in a beachy escape before the situation changes -- if it changes.

"I was actually worried coming out here that we'd see a lot of oil and our day would be affected," said Ben Dickinson, 20, a student at the University of New Orleans. "We're worried that this whole area might become a ghost town if boat traffic disappears."

"We canceled our family trip to Fort Walton [Beach] at the end of June," said Tiffany Phillips of Slidell, La. "We'll probably go to some campground. Find a lake and go swimming there."

"If you see a tar ball or an animal in distress, please do not touch it," a crew member announced over the speakers as the Gulf Islander docked at a National Park Service pier off West Ship Island.

The passengers filed off the Gulf Islander, lugging their coolers, raising their fishing poles, slathering themselves with a different kind of oil and flip-flopping off down the pier to the piping-hot white sands of West Ship Island, which looked like paradise, save for the bright orange boom quietly bobbing along the beach -- a nagging (and costly) reminder of what could come.

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