Reporter's Notebook From The Gulf - Signs of the Times
By Jim Shepherd, The Outdoor Wire
The signs tell the story. “No child’s shrimp specials”. “All oyster dishes add $1.50 to listed price”. “Sorry, no all-you-can-eat shrimp specials until further notice”.
In a region that prides itself on the freshest seafood, hope is running as low as the shrimp and oyster supplies. Even in the areas where the beaches are pristine, the seafood stocks are dwindling. For many of the smaller restaurants known for their own unique twists on the fresh seafood that has, until recently, been plentiful, these signs may soon be replaced by “For Rent” or “Closed”.
On Highway 98 in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, the Wisen family is playing the waiting game at their normally busy Shrimpers Seafood Market. Today, rather than serving a swell of tourists looking for fresh seafood, there’s time to speculate about the coming holiday weekend - and hope the tourists come back.
“It’s hard to be cheerful,” says one visitor, “I’m seeing occupancy go all the way up to about eighty-five percent for Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. On Monday, it’s back down to about twenty-three percent.”
“We can’t survive on weekend traffic.”
At Shrimpers Seafood Market on Highway 98 in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida there are still shrimp-but not the normal number of customers. If the oil comes ashore as feared, both may be gone next week. Jim Shepherd photo.
When I ask about the prospects for the week ahead, conversation turns from forced cheerfulness to downright skepticism. Looking at the latest projections, the Wisen’s are expecting the oil to reach the shore within the next 72 hours. As one local said, “it (the oil) is only a couple of thousand yards off the beach and the wind and tide are pushing inshore. We’re going to get what Grayton and Miramar (Beaches) have already gotten - but worse.”
The latest information from officials seems to confirm the fears. Rough seas, high tides and occasionally torrential downpours point toward a roiling of weather conditions that head the prevailing winds inexorably toward the beaches. Workers were absent from their beach watching shelters yesterday due to occasionally violent storms. Today, there’s an eighty percent chance of the same weather. Again, it seems a game of Russian roulette is being played between the residents and the weather. The longer the game continues, the higher the likelihood that tar balls will be found on the beach. And behind the tarballs, the oil cloud is lurking.
Already, Escambia County is reporting tar balls, patties and heavy oil sheen. The beaches and water of Panama City Beach are all open, but all eyes are on the weather- and the surf.
Only a few people are visiting the storm swept beaches, but everyone is keeping an eye on the conditions created by Hurricane Alex. Jim Shepherd photo.
Alabama officials I spoke with yesterday tell me they’re experiencing the same conditions, but Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, normally jam packed with tourists for the long holiday weekend tell me the beaches are “heavily oiled” and not the tourists. The tourists are, largely, absent.
“People are starving to death here,” one official said, “right now, the only people who seem to have job security are either covering the accident - or cleaning it up. Everyone else is watching the water and wondering if they’ll be able to make it.
Alabama health officials have issued advisories against swimming in the waters off Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Fort Morgan. Similar advisories are in place for the bay waters off Fort Morgan, Bayou St. John, Terry Cove, Cotton Bayou, and Old River. No swimming advisories were already in place for Dauphin Island and the Mississippi Sound.
At this point, Mississippi and Louisiana, the points of greatest concern from the long-term ecological impact, are largely open, although officials advise visitors to “be aware of local conditions”.
Yesterday, I spoke with Mike Checkett of Ducks Unlimited about the potential impact. Checkett has been in the Gulf for much of the last four weeks, observing the situation and trying to get a handle on the potential damage the situation might inflict on the area. Like most of us, Checkett knew the potential for devastating impacts, but says it’s impossible to predict due to the variables of ocean currents, weather patterns and the potential for severe tropical weather systems. His greatest concern in the event of severe weather isn’t the immediate impact on oil coming ashore or topping the booms that are, so far, keeping the oil somewhat at bay.
The real long-term threat is storm surge. Should a hurricane come ashore, the resultant tidal surges could drive oil into “fresh and intermediate salinity marshes so important to waterfowl and other wetland birds.” Should that happen, he says, the impact would be “devastating”.
Today, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is working with conservation groups and state wildlife agencies to develop a strategy to help the migratory birds that will be arriving in a few weeks. At this point, no radical plans have been announced, but neither has anyone tried to minimize the potential impact this disaster could have on waterfowl and migratory birds, potentially for decades to come.
The word from the oil cleanup and containment effort is anything but encouraging. High seas, heavy rains and storm conditions from Hurricane Alex have effectively stopped all work except the oil-capture and relief well drilling are effectively shutdown for the next 48 hours.
When the storm does subside, however, a new, and untested tool is waiting to get into action. It’s a massive oil tanker converted into a skimming vessel. Today, it’s anchored in the Mississippi River in Boothville, Louisiana.
In the meantime, seven-foot seas and winds of up to twenty-five miles per hour have assaulted the tiger dams that have - at least to this point - held oil off the beaches. With the booms taking a beating, however, it seems a certainty that much of the containment efforts of the past three weeks will be undone by wind and water.
Regardless, we’ll keep you posted.
Continue to monitor the Gulf Oil Spill here on OutdoorChannel.com