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In La. beach town, bitter farewells to a lost summer

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 5, 2010; 7:58 PM

GRAND ISLE, LA. -

This is it. It is over. Summer is lost.

Those were Fred Marshall's thoughts as he slumped behind his tiny desk at Gulfstream Marina, worry lines criss-crossing his face, redness framing his weary blue-green eyes in this picturesque beach town.

When BP's oil started flowing into the Gulf of Mexico in April, beachgoers and money stopped flowing into town. By the time the company managed to cap the deep-water well in mid-July, the damage was done. Summer, when Grand Isle merchants earn the profits they rely on for the rest of the year, was gone, said Marshall, 48.

Grand Isle depends heavily on tourism, and its beach is a major draw in Louisiana. Residents often travel more than 100 miles to bathe there. As Labor Day weekend, the traditional end of summer, comes to a close, less than half of the seven-mile beach has been reopened by workers, who cleared away oil and tar balls. Business lifted slightly, but Marshall and other merchants were in no mood to celebrate. Louisianans turn their attention from fishing and the beach to other forms of recreation in September, namely football and hunting.

"We lost 90 percent of our business," said Marshall, an assistant manager at the marina. Like the owners of souvenir shops, eateries and bars, and even the priest at the local Catholic church, Marshall said he filed a business loss claim against BP at the area community center and was preparing to file another.

"I'm extremely angry. I had to go into therapy. I got really depressed. It was terrible," he said. "I was really expecting a good season. Now we'll be barely able to pay our electric bill in the winter. I might be out of a job because they can't have me here doing nothing."

A boy wearing a fishing cap popped his head in the door. "Can I help you, son?" Marshall asked. The boy's family was about to sail into the gulf for some recreational fishing, and he wondered if Marshall had fresh bait.

"No," Marshall said, as if for the hundredth time. "The people who catch our fresh shrimp and other bait are working as oil spotters for BP."

Merchants said BP's workers are as much a part of the problem as they are the solution. Their labor reopened six of the beach's 15 zones since Memorial Day, the traditional start of summer. But they also occupy most of the hotel rooms and guesthouses, prompting lodges such as Grand Isle Suites to post "no vacancy" signs.

"The thing that ticks me off is you can't rent anywhere," said Delphine Honeycutt, 34, who sunned on the beach in a black bikini after driving more than 60 miles from Houma with her boyfriend, Jan Van Steaden, 38, and their children. When the day is over, they'll have to drive back, taking dollars that would have paid for drinks, snacks and dinner.

"It's all about cleaning the beach right now," Van Steaden said. "But for the people who bring the money to the beach, there's no place to stay."

Honeycutt perched herself on her elbows and looked around Zone 2. At 3:30 p.m. on the Saturday before Labor Day - a peak day and a peak time - the closest family to her right was 40 yards away. The closest to her left was at least the length of a football field. Between them was smooth, dark sand.

Honeycutt grew up in Grand Isle, and she recalled elbowing her way into a patch of sand on holidays like this. Families lined up "tent to tent to tent to tent," and men built bonfires to cook the fish they caught as the island's population of 1,000 increased tenfold, she said.

"It's different," she shrugged. Her thoughts turned to the long drive back to Houma and the workers who occupied the room they would've rented for about $110 per night. "We just wish they would just frickin' go home," Honeycutt said.

Emma Chighizola, owner of Blue Water Souvenirs, said the little money that workers spend for keepsakes kept her shop open. They stop by on weekdays to shop, sometimes out of sympathy.

Chighizola leaned on a countertop next to a nearly empty cash register. Two teenagers, the only customers in the store, checked out T-shirts they didn't buy. Her daughter, a worker, stood nearby with nothing to do.

"It would be real busy in here right now," during a typical summer, Chighizola, 68, said. "I would normally have three people working in here."

On Sunday, the Associated Press reported that engineers had pulled the 300-ton Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer to the gulf's surface. The device is a key piece of evidence for investigators trying to determine what caused the blast that killed 11 oil rig workers and started the oil spill. FBI agents planned to escort the device to a NASA facility in Louisiana.

The Rev. Wilmer Todd, acting pastor of Our Lady of the Isle Catholic Church, said BP will have to launch a major public relations effort to be forgiven in Grand Isle. He sat in a reconstructed office with walls freshly painted beige, a renovation that the church can't pay for.

"This church depends on collections to get it through the winter, and we didn't get that this year," Todd said. "We depend on visitors coming through."

Last weekend, the church was half full. This weekend "is our last hurrah," Todd said, but it's a little late. The church will apply for a loan through the archdiocese, but it's also counting its losses and planning to file a claim against BP.

Rene Vegas, 48, and his wife, Dotie, prayed for a miracle at the entrance of Grand Isle, where they own the Bridge Side Marina. They needed tens of thousands of Louisianans to show up for the 50th annual Redfish Rodeo to help them salvage a miserable summer.

It was so bad in June that the couple could buy only $248 worth of fishing tackle from their supplier in Mississippi, compared with the $50,000 they usually buy. Dotie called the supplier to apologize.

Vegas said they thought of closing the marina for the summer ,"but it's not in our blood. We stuck to it. We fought. People like to fish. Now look at it." Hundreds of visitors were flowing in on Saturday for the rodeo, "but it's still not the same."

Hardly, said Chris Adams, 48, of Natchitoches, La., an avid angler who returned to fish for the first time this summer. "It's disappointing," he said. "It's good to see this place back up."

But Adams said there was something missing. "There aren't as many birds," he said. The silence was eerie.

Normally, birds would flock by the hundreds at the station where fish are cleaned. "Now there are about 10," he said. "Makes me sick. The spill got a lot of them. I guess it's encouraging that the fish are back in the water.

"Everything will come back," he said. "Maybe."

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