Reflections from the Gulf of Mexico

By Leslie Tamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 7:25 PM

Six months after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig led to the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, residents and community leaders along the Gulf Coast reflect on how life has changed.

Chris Garner, 43, unemployed, former charter boat captain

Orange Beach, Ala.

April 20, I had a job, and I was at home, and everything was pretty good, within reason. May 20, I still had a job - everything appeared to be all right. June 3, I lost my employment, and the gulf started being shut down more and more. June 23, I found myself out of my own house and undergoing a divorce, and I'm still in that process right now.

There've been huge surprises, all the way from a personal friend committing suicide to family issues, and I'm not blaming the oil spill for that, but it certainly was a stressor that caused a lot of grief and anxiety.

I'm hopeful things will get better. It's still a challenge now that we're getting into our slow season.

I have had the opportunity to fish four days over the last 14, and that's been the closest thing to normal that I've experienced since that oil spill happened.

I'm just a blue-collared guy trying to make a living on the beach.

I think we will be back full next season. I don't think we'll check out. I think it'll end up okay. I don't see gloom on the horizon forever.

The water is clear and pretty. People are back down here. Assuming there's no issues that show up, today it looks pretty good.

Acy Cooper, 50, commercial fisherman

Venice, La.

What we usually do isn't the same. A lot of areas are still closed, and there's a lot of frustration from everybody.

We don't know what's going to happen with the future. Is the shrimp going to come next year?

I'm shrimping now, but it's not as steady. We don't know where we're going - where they're going to be at. We're still limited, but more and more areas are opening back up.

But just by capping the well and saying everything's okay, when we know the oil is still out there - we all have worries.

My dad's a fisherman. My boys are fishermen. We lived on the uncertainty of this. We went back to work after Katrina. After this, we don't know. . . .

There's a lot of issues we could've done better. In Bay Jimmy [a body of water in the southern Louisiana marshes], some guys are still working for BP, and they said the peanut-butter stuff was all over the whole bay, and they don't know what's going on.

It's still coming.

We're going to have to deal with this a long time yet.

Lisa Farr, 46, owner of the T-Shirt Factory inside the Purple Octopus souvenir store

Gulf Shores, Ala.

It was a summer we've never had before - even through hurricanes, we've never had it like that.

Business was down 60 percent.

It was almost like a ghost town.

We'd come in on a holiday, and it felt like a winter month when you have a little activity going around, but you didn't wait in line at the stores; you didn't wait in line at the restaurants.

Right now, business is not as bad as it was.

We're optimistic, hoping that business is going to be even better come spring. But you just never know, because there's always things that could come from this that we don't know about. I don't know what to expect.

I know that the water is beautiful. I've swam in the water, and it was beautiful, absolutely beautiful.

All I can do is hope we do not have to go through another summer like this. I hope that things are safe and that the tourists will come back. I trust that it is.

Ken Kichler, chief financial officer of Tacky Jacks Tavern & Grill

Orange Beach, Ala.

From a historical perspective, when it happened in late April, it didn't really mean anything to us. Sure, it was something, but it wasn't something any of us thought was a threat to our way of life.

Then as the weeks progressed into May, we started hearing stories about oil. Everyone was getting scared. The Friday after our best Memorial Day weekend, oil started coming up in our area.

We all kept thinking: Is this going to stop?

The businesses kind of collapsed or went down severely, and we had to make a lot of new plans and operate the business at a lower cost, and while this was going on, still thinking this was going to stop tomorrow.

We struggled in June and July and most of August. And August came, and they got the thing capped, and we got a lot more optimistic. . . .

I believe the marketplace will rebound, that the island and area have gotten national exposure that it's never gotten before, and it'll have a huge positive impact in the long term. I don't want another one.

Alwin Landry, 41, captain of the supply ship Damon B. Bankston, which rescued dozens of workers after the Deepwater Horizon explosion

Franklin, La.

The last six months have been kind of unique with all the people I've been talking with, but for the day-to-day stuff, it's been pretty much the same. I've just had a reaffirmation of the beliefs I had before. I'm just enjoying life as it goes. Just keeping in mind the travesty of that night, the 11 souls that are missing. I catch myself reflecting on it from time to time, but moving forward and grasping life as it is.

Business-wise, the moratorium was pretty devastating. Job-wise, we struggled to get through the time.

We're happy now, knowing that it's lifted, but it's the first step of many.

I don't think [the moratorium] was needed to start with. It was imposed by a knee-jerk reaction.

You cannot cripple the industry while trying to impose these new procedures - which is basically what the moratorium did. It just stopped everything, which I think caused more damage to the whole economic situation.

Hopefully we'll get some drilling leases in action soon and get some companies back to drilling, and get this economic machine moving again down here.

Bill Masters, 60, correctional officer, former Seahawk Drilling employee

Trout, La.

I was laid off June 23 after the spill when they done the moratorium on the drilling. I'd been on the same rig for 15 years, and they shut it down and laid everybody on it off. I was offshore for 35 years.

Now, it's completely different. I'm making about a fifth of the money than I was offshore. I'm just basically starting over, trying to get retirement back up.

Right now I'm working as a corrections officer at a detainee facility for [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. . . .

I don't agree with the moratorium. I don't think they researched it enough. Instead of jumping in and shutting it down, they should've researched the long-term effects.

You need to check more with what you're affecting.

Everything is affected through this sector in one way or another. People need to think before they jump.

It's a good thing they lifted it. I'm hoping it'll pick back up, but I still think it's going to be probably a year before it picks back up.

If I can get a job back offshore, I'm going back offshore.

But I'm 60, and when your retirement is spent at 60, that gives me six years to try and recoup that. I cannot do that where I'm at now. I can't depend on Social Security. I like to have a little money in the bank at 66, so I can fish a little longer, or I'm going to be 75 and working at Wal-Mart.

Charlie Melancon , 63, Democratic congressman

Napoleonville, La.

Hurricanes are something we grow up with. They're catastrophic, but you can go about fixing it. The oil spill is a situation where you don't see what worries you the most. We don't know what's at the bottom of the coastal marshes, or what will happen when we have a storm that might agitate and churn it all up from the bottom. It's a matter of taking every day as it comes.

There's a lot of unknowns. There's still a matter of us trying to get people back to their comfort levels all over the country to where they're comfortable with the seafood from the Gulf of Mexico. . . .

I pushed for the lifting of the moratorium, but I told all my colleagues that I can't in good faith ask for the moratorium to be lifted without making sure safety is ensured as much as possible.

But we got the language done. Now I need to make sure that the offices that process these permits do these expeditiously and thoroughly.

These people are resilient, hardworking, and I think the bulk of them will pull themselves up by their bootstraps and go out there and try to get businesses back up. But you still need people out there to buy their products.

This season that we missed, those associated with the marinas, shrimping, motels, cabins, rental houses, etc., etc., have lost a year, and that's a hardship. So hopefully we'll see BP make good to these people . . . by providing them income or a final settlement so they can move on with life.

Charles "Chuckie" Verdin, 54, Pointe-au-Chien tribal chief

Pointe-aux-Chenes, La.

I don't want to say this was a wasted summer. It was just like, you know, a year we'll never see again.

It was a big difference this year. We worked for BP, but we weren't able to fish - which is what we usually do. It was work we never had before. We adopted it, but we would've rather been fishing.

Instead of fishing, we were cleaning up oil. It was just working every day, getting up in the morning, having to follow rules. It wasn't something we were used to.

Last year, I was shrimping. I would spend a week at a time offshore and come home for a couple of days and go back out.

[Working for BP], I wasn't able to spend time with my kids and my grandkids like I usually do.

I'm still working for BP now [as a supervisor for the Vessel of Opportunity program]. Others are waiting to go back fishing, and a handful have gone back fishing. Most are waiting to see what happens. The seafood business is still unstable.

Things have improved since the beginning, but the only thing we're uncertain of is if the seafood will be back next year.

Some of the marsh has grown back. Some of it still has some oil on it. Some think nature will take its course. Others don't believe that will happen. We'll have to wait and see.

A lot of things are up in the air - that's what makes a lot of people nervous.

I'll be going back to fishing hopefully. Hopefully that's what I'll be doing.

All the professionals tell me everything's back to normal. We hope that's true.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company