Alabama Gulf Coast
Alabama’s Gulf Coast businesses rebuild after oil spill, slow summer
By Martine Bates Sharp
It’s more than a month into the fall — normally time for business at the beach to slow down. But this year has been anything but normal, and fall looks like the busiest time of the year for Alabama’s Gulf Coast.
An explosion on an oil drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20 killed 11 workers and short-circuited the tourist season that usually kicks off on Memorial Day and ends on Labor Day, with spurts of activity before and after the holiday weekends. The damaged well beneath the platform was not capped until July 15, after 206 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf.
Although the oil didn’t make landfall in the area until early June, fears of a ruined vacation prompted multitudes of people to cancel or simply not make plans to visit Alabama beaches.
Sammie Warwick, manager of Island Retreat RV Park in Gulf Shores, described the 2010 season as “our worst ever” in the seven years the park has been open.
“This year, even our regulars who leave their campers parked here all summer and travel back and forth decided not to come,” Warwick said. “The news media made it sound terrible when it really wasn’t.”
Reports published by the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau show taxable lodging rentals during the summer of 2010 down 46.5 percent over the previous summer and retail sales down by 27.8 percent.
While Island Retreat managed to survive the dismal summer, other businesses did not. A sign on the Wheelhouse Restaurant on Highway 59, the main road into Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, reads “It’s been fun. Closed.” A sign in front of the Captain’s Galley, a restaurant on county Road 10 along the Bon Secour River, reads “Closed due to BP oil spill.”
Labor Day brought more tourists than summer but not the usual number.
“We’re normally completely full for Labor Day and the shrimp festival (held the second weekend in October on the beaches of Gulf Shores),” Warwick said. “This year, Labor Day was slow. We had some vacancies. We were almost 85 percent full for the shrimp festival.”
Tourists continued to come the weekend after the festival for free concerts featuring Bon Jovi and Brad Paisley. The concerts, which were part of the Concerts for the Coast series that began in July with Jimmy Buffett, were designed to lure tourists to the area. The plan worked, drawing large crowds — an estimated 60,000 total for the two latest concerts — and filling hotels, condos and campgrounds up to 90 percent occupancy.
A press release issued in early October by the Unified Area Command, a group with representatives from BP — which holds the drilling permit for the well — and a number of federal agencies, noted that more than 90 percent of previously closed fishing waters had reopened and that all seafood samples had passed “sensory and chemical testing for oil and dispersant contamination.”
But the news is not all good for the Gulf Coast. Although no oil is detectable on the beaches or in the water, it lurks just below the surface in the sand.
In an Oct. 13 press briefing, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft reported, “Some of our more challenging areas continue to be what we call amenity or recreational beaches along the Florida panhandle and in Orange Beach (and) Gulf Shores, where some of that oil had actually aggregated into that sand column. And so we’re doing a rather deep clean of that sand to restore those to original conditions.”
The “deep clean” involves two pieces of machinery dubbed “sand sharks” that can go down more than 3 feet to sift sand and remove tar. Zukunft said the deep cleaning has begun in less-populated areas and may continue into the winter. But even with the continued cleanup, Gulf-area tourism officials encourage Alabamians to take advantage of winter events such as the 26th annual Frank Brown International Songwriters’ Festival set for Nov. 11–21, the extended red snapper season (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays only) until Nov. 22 and the many lodging specials available for the fall and winter seasons.
For more information, visit www.gulfshores.com.