The following unedited newspaper story was written in July 2010 at the height of the BP Gulf coast oil spill disaster. The story was killed, as happens sometimes, but holds resonance now as the summer tourist season kicks off on America’s Redneck Riviera. Or, perhaps Alexander Pope said it better: How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!/ The world forgetting, by the world forgot./ Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!/ Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.
by Chadwick Moore
The landscape flattens dramatically on Highway 59 as you approach Gulf Shores, Alabama heading southeast from Mobile. A decade ago was the last time I found myself in this part of the country. As you near the Gulf of Mexico brand new strip malls, golf courses, and neat rows of freshly-planted crepe myrtle trees are interspersed with tracks of abandoned gas stations, roadside shacks selling boiled peanuts, and dirt roads that shoot off gracefully from the main highway.
The sights here in this small part of the state are unlike anything encountered on the eight hour drive from Nashville, Tennessee that as I child I made every summer with my family. The contrast of sparkling new developments timidly pop up among great stretches of crumbling and forgotten properties are a constant reminder that hurricanes have always been the bane of existence for life on the Gulf and oil spills just a minor nuisance.
I find myself in Gulf Shores, Alabama for just one day. It’s two weeks following the announcement that the Deepwater Horizon oil leak has been successfully capped. The first beach I visit is swarming with police cars, blue and red lights flashing like a crime scene, and a man in a reflective orange vest motions for me to turn around and go back the way I came.
“Got to leave,” he says. “Beach is closed.”
About a mile down the road I find a public beach that is not closed. The Gulf coast has a warning system for water conditions using color-coded flags that are flown along the coastline. A red flag is reserved for hurricane-like conditions, hazardous currents and a strong undertow. Double red flags, such as the ones I see today, indicate conditions so hazardous it’s illegal to enter the water. Nonetheless, this afternoon a few dozen people are swimming. A pair of park rangers catches shade underneath a wooden pavilion and I ask one of them if the water is safe. He’s bashful and speaks with a thick, syrupy Deep South draw . “Don’t know,” he smiles. “They say it’s not a good idea to get in the water. [That’s why] we got the double red flags out.”
“Who are they?” I ask.
Just then a large heavily-armored helicopter painted orange charges westward along the shore and the park ranger nods toward it and says, “them. BP.”
The helicopter did not in fact belong to BP. It was the Alabama Coast Guard and beach-goers I spoke to said they fly by about twenty times a day. There is also an ominous-looking, unmarked white zeppelin that periodically hovers over the town and at night the usually black horizon is aglow as far as the eye can see with small lights, “boats skimming for oil,” I’m told. The town overall has the feeling of a place under quarantine. The residents, still frustrated and bewildered, carry themselves like a population under siege. They are, effectively, in the way of all the outsiders who’ve descended upon the town since the oil made landfall earlier this summer. Beach Boulevard, home to high-rise hotels and souvenir shops, is usually jammed with traffic this time of year but today cars move languidly down the two-lane street except for the occasional frantic scuttle of cleanup trucks and police cars.
It’s about one in the afternoon and after a few minutes of sunbathing on the beach I’m struck by its eerie spotlessness. I’m reminded how, when visiting here as a child, there was always oil on these beaches. We called it “tar” and it was as common to find washing up in the surf as seashells or sun-bleached crab skeletons. No one gave the tar much thought. It was a seamless part of the landscape. Sometimes it would get stuck to your feet and many of the hotels kept buckets of soapy water and brushes outside for you to scrub it off before you entered.
My companion today, a local resident of Gulf Shores, complains of a “diesel-like smell” when we get onto the beach. “It’s because they just dig big holes and bury all the oil right here in the sand,” she says. “All summer we’ve been watching [the cleanup workers]. They just stand around for an hour, shovel sand into plastic bags for fifteen minutes, then take another hour break.”
“When President Obama came to visit he went to Dolphin Island and they told us to circle Dolphin Island with our boats, so that it looked like we were really working hard, then by the time he left and reached Fort Morgan we were instructed to go back and park the ships,” said another woman involved with the cleanup effort after losing her job at a hotel. She asked not to be identified. “It’s all about appearances. Everything’s just about appearances.”
Although these types of stories, albeit unsurprising, are purely hearsay they resonate with the general attitude of many locals who each seem to have their own version of what actually is going on with the cleanup effort. My companion is convinced she’ll soon lose her job taking reservations at a resort hotel. But her frustration, like many people I met during my brief visit, seems divided between the damage done to the local economy and the simple fact that they can’t enjoy their beaches on these humid, 98-degree afternoons in July. She leaves just a few minutes after we arrive at the beach, complaining that the smell is burning her nostrils. “I haven’t been able to come here since all this happened,” she says. “Because of the smell.”
I went for a swim anyway. At the onset of this oil spill much excitement brewed around the possibility of this event being a catalyst for mankind to change its relationship to oil. There was a silver lining to the disaster. That surely something of this magnitude must be precisely what is needed to generate change in America’s relationship to fossil fuels. Yet now, all of this is rapidly fading, as it usually does, into the distant memory of our news media and politicians and nothing seems likely to change anytime soon, if ever.
After my swim, I emerged from the murky waters of the Gulf to see even more people making use of the beach. There was a peaceful groan of jet skis off in the distance and several yards out a lone man parasailing over the water. A toddler crawled in the surf under the watchful eye of her parents and nearby a group of teenage boys tossed a football. The strong impression here today among beachgoers was of things cautiously yet happily returning to exactly the way they were before. And for the residents, a strong sense of optimism prevailed that next summer will bring a return to normalcy.