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Majority of Gulf Coast residents hurt economically, emotionally from spill, Washington Post-ABC News poll finds

By Kyle Dropp and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; 5:09 PM

Residents of the Gulf Coast are reeling from the effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill, as big majorities of those in the area already hit by oil report a steep economic downturn and say the slick has caused severe environmental degradation. Many also say they've suffered emotionally and personally, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Three-quarters of those who live in affected counties and parishes from Louisiana to Florida say the spill has hurt their local economies, with large numbers fearing negative, long-term consequences for the environment, the economy, tourism and the safety of the seafood they eat.

"This economy survives off of seafood and the oil rigs," said Dusty Goforth, 57, of Slidell, La., in a follow-up interview. "Right now, they've got all of that shut down. It's destroyed the economy down here."

Nearly a third of those polled in the Gulf say the spill has hurt their own pocketbook.

Aaron Terrebonne, 27, of Cutoff, La., said he lost his job in carpentry a few weeks after the spill and has not found work since.

"Nobody wants to poke out any money to spend on their houses," he said. "You don't have to remodel, it's a luxury."

Guy Tatum, 64, a small business owner in Orange Beach, Ala., said his records show his tourism dependent business is down more than 40 percent from last summer, which was a tough one as well.

The spill has also deeply touched the psyches of many Gulf residents. About two-thirds of those in the area say they're angry or upset about the spill. A third of those in affected counties and parishes say they've felt depressed about the spill recently. Among residents reporting the most oil ashore in their areas, 55 percent are downright angry and 39 percent say they've been depressed about it.

"I think there's an undercurrent all the time of depression down here. I'd be surprised if the whole country didn't feel it," said Elizabeth Rappaport, 53, of New Orleans.

For Lynda Presley, 61, of Saucier, Miss., it's a bad trend. "It's sad because it's going to take a long, long time for our lives to be like they were. I think we got a double whammy," she said, referring back to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.

The poll, conducted by telephone July 7 to 11, included interviews with additional, randomly selected residents along the Gulf in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi. A total of 301 area adults were interviewed, and the sample has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 6.5 percentage points. The full national poll has an error margin of 3.5 points.

About seven in 10 nationally and in the Gulf give the federal government negative ratings on its handling of the spill, and roughly eight in 10 in both samples give low marks to BP.

President Obama's performance also gets critical reviews. Some 53 percent nationally and 73 percent in the affected areas say they disapprove of the job he's doing on the spill. (All together, Obama's Republican opponent John S. McCain won 61 percent of the vote in these areas in 2008.)

"The federal government needs to start paying more attention to what the local people and local leaders are saying," said Goforth, who owns a small air conditioning and refrigeration business. "They [the local leaders] have a lot more at stake and a lot more knowledge than the federal leaders do."

Many others in the Gulf agree: In sharp contrast to how residents view Washington and BP, most, 62 percent, give positive ratings to the job their state and local governments are doing on the spill.

"Our local officials, especially the mayor, he's done an excellent job." added Tatum, "[h]e's worked with the people, with the boats, with the beach cleanup. All he's doing is working on the oil spill. The council people, they're always just working there too."

"I have complete confidence in our local officials and even some of our state officials," said Robyn Eldridge, 49, of Fort Walton, Fla., citing recent town hall meetings organized by local officials. "I don't think anybody in this area would say that they are concerned about our local politicians. It's more about not getting the kind of federal support we need."

Countrywide, close to six in 10 approve of a federal six-month ban on new offshore drilling, but in the Gulf region six in 10 oppose it. Opposition peaks in the Louisiana parishes nearest the slick, with greater than 70 percent of those residents against the ban.

"This is the first time that we've really had a problem [with drilling]," said Peggy Louviere, 57, of New Iberia, La. "I think they ought to be allowed to drill, but I'm in a state where this affects us tremendously. This is going to be devastating to the state of Louisiana. Louisiana is just an oil state. In central and south Louisiana, a lot of the people who live here, this is what they do."

Goforth, of St. Tammany Parish, calls the moratorium a "joke." Instead of banning new drilling, he says the federal government "should have started inspecting and enforcing the rules and regulations that were already there."

But environmental concerns about the spill are also a big factor. Fully 79 percent of area residents call the spill a major environmental disaster, and 86 percent are very concerned about lasting harm to the ecosystem.

"We go through hurricanes every year. At least a hurricane might wipe out a few things, but at least you can rebuild it. This is gonna be there forever, for years to come." said Terrebonne. He is considering leaving the region.

Large numbers have other concerns as well: 78 percent say they're very worried about their area's economy, 75 percent fear for seafood safety and 70 percent are extremely concerned about the fate of the region's vital tourism industry.

Eldridge says her home county in Florida has not been hit as bad as other areas, but still has seen a steep decline in tourist traffic: "The restaurants are empty. Normally, during the summer, tourism is so great. ...Some of the restaurants where you normally have an hour or hour and a half wait, you can walk right in."

In follow-up interviews, several residents also expressed concern that the Gulf, which plays a central role in their lives, will be taken away from them. "The water is part of everyone's world here. The food, the Gulf of Mexico is a part of our childhood, it's a part of our family," said Rappaport, a video editor. "Every vacation I have ever been on has been to the Gulf of Mexico . . . Our Gulf of Mexico is going to be the Dead Sea!"

Still, some tinged their apprehension with optimism. "What I fear is that my children's children will never have the Gulf of Mexico to go in," Rappaport said. "What I hope is that my children or their children will come up with something to clean this up."

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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