By Austin Campbell… Louisiana and Gulf Coast area restaurants, hotels, shops, and other businesses impacted by the tourist economy, experienced significant losses in revenue immediately after the BP oil spill. How are they faring today– nine months later?
Our traveling class posed that question to a broad range of representatives, from the U.S. Coast Guard to New Orleans restaurant tycoon Dickie Brennan, to tourism leaders in New Orleans and Gulf Shores, Ala. Although most of what we heard centered on the economic and ecological impact, many regional leaders noted the dramatic psychological impact on the population in the Gulf coast areas.
The wildlife and coastline destruction, job loss, lost tourism revenue and long-term uncertainties surrounding the BP oil spill affected morale throughout the region. But we noticed a marked difference in Louisianans compared to Alabamans.
Louisianans seemed more upset and were intent on being heard and not forgotten. Having gone through the flooding after Katrina and now the oil spill, it is no wonder Louisianans feel battered and ignored. “This disaster has worsened the issue of our disappearing coastline,” said Drue Banta, a spokesperson for Coastal Activities for the State of Louisiana, Office of the Governor. “People down here feel the rest of the country doesn’t care, and they don’t seen any real signs of help coming from Washington.”
Louisianans have weathered a long history of coastal destruction from energy and chemical companies, not to mention natural disasters. But the BP oil spill affected the regional psyche in a profound way. It wasn’t just a spill, it was a “gusher,” insisted Dr. Robert Thomas, director of the Center for Environmental Communication at Loyola University. “It was a human mistake caused when oil companies took too many technological short-cuts.” He noted that the ongoing visual image of the gusher on TV and the images of their beloved land and wildlife covered in oil had a devastating psychological impact.
Although Mississippi and Alabama residents were also hit hard by the “gusher,” the message repeated by those in government and tourism in those states seemed to reflect a firm but optimistic attitude — that now is the time to move forward, stay positive and plan the next move.
“You gotta put it behind you to move forward,” said Herb Malone Jr., president and CEO of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism.
Linda Whitlock, President of Alabama Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce, concurs. She cites hard realities that have impacted the people in the region: the suicide of a charter boat captain who told friends that the spill marked the end of his way of life, the negative media attention that drove tourists away and hammered the economy, and BP’s poor handling of the clean up response. However, she declared the events have helped pull the community together. “We gathered for daily meetings, coming up with a common message, rallying to support each other. We formed the Coastal Resiliency Coalition, CRC. … It has become a model for crisis management and communication.”
Johnny Fisher manager of Lulu’s restaurant in Gulf Shores applauds the way Gulf Shores and surrounding beach communities came together to solve problems. “Adversity provides an opportunity to get better.” He cited the t-shirt campaigns, the record-breaking crowds at the beach concerts given by big name musicians who wanted to help, and an upcoming campaign he’s planning to show how people are uniting to address the cause.
Although the residents of Louisiana seem less upbeat, they are no less determined to make sure the BP oil spill is not just another disaster swept under the rug. In fact, Banta and some nonprofit representatives feel this latest crisis, may be what is needed to finally get meaningful help.
So, while Alabama’s focus is getting its beach goers to return and Louisiana’s focus is to restore their way of life on the waterways, all the Gulf states impacted by the BP oil spill share a hope that this crisis will bring much-deserved attention to the Gulf region.