ALONG THE GULF COAST – The hint of kerosene in the air on Mobile Bay served as an immediate reminder of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

It wasn’t an overpowering scent, but a faint fragrance similar to what you might smell a few minutes after spraying WD-40 on something.

For all of the people I met and talked with during a weekend long exploratory tour of what’s happening along the Gulf coast from Dauphin Island, Ala., to Apalachicola, Fla., this change from the normal salty sea breeze to slightly oil-tinged winds is something that won’t be easy to shake.

To be clear, I didn’t see a bunch of goo on any of the white sandy beaches that are as typical of the Gulf coast as sugar is in sweet tea. But here are some observations:

•    People are very worried about what the oil is going to do to the tourism and fisheries businesses along the coast. And they’re more worried about the impact of the spill for wildlife.

•    But they’re apparently not worried enough yet not to swim in the water. It was surprising how people would bathe in the clear, green waters as crews periodically combed beaches for pea-sized tarballs.

•    Contract crews were spotted in Dauphin Island, Ala., and just south of Pensacola Beach, Fla. They wore makeshift haz-mat suits – yellow plastic boots that were duct-taped to their pants. The stuff they picked up seemed small – no larger than a silver dollar, one observer said. It wasn’t hard to wonder whether these crews were on beaches more for public relations purposes than for significant clean-up work.

•    The red and yellow strings of boom around parts of the shoreline seemed pretty flimsy, making us wonder just how much oil they can keep out.

During the trip, I talked with Peck Thompson, a 77-year-old retired sheet rock worker who was fishing for croaker in Mobile Bay. He said he wasn’t too sure how much longer he’d be able to fish like he’d been doing for the last 60 years.

“It’s a disaster right now,” he said Saturday. “It’s going to shut a lot of businesses down – bait shops and stuff and the people who make their business fishing.” He said business at the bait shop over which he lived was about half of what it should be.

A few minutes later, I ran into Drew Wheelan of the American Birding Association. He had been sent from Washington state to find out the impact of the spill on wildlife. He had, he mournfully said, a bunch of pictures of oiled birds.
Later that day, Capt. Billy Lyons, president of Volco.LLC marine contractors from Spanish Fort, Ala., described how he came up with an idea to protect Weeks Bay and its national estuarine research reserve. Because Weeks Bay, a relatively small inlet off Mobile Bay, is only about 600 yards across before it opens into a large area, Lyons said he was implementing a plan to block the entrance of the bay by positioning three long barges across the neck of the inlet buffeted by sectional floating barges. The barges would knock down choppy waves from Mobile Bay and allow the boom, positioned behind the barges, to do their work. Otherwise, he said, the waves would jump over boom, carrying oil with it.

Early Sunday, Tampa, Fla., TV reporter Don Germaise told viewers during a live broadcast from Pensacola Beach, that the spill was “only going to get worse.” The day before, he said he had seen a bunch of tarballs on beaches east of town. When Germaise finished his shot, a salesman for ‘oil-eating microbes” tried to get the news team to do a story about their product for which a display was set up nearby.

Moments later at a beach in Gulf Islands National Seashore, 36-year-old Larry Femrite of Pensacola was walking off the beach with a camera. He explained he had just left an overnight shift at a nearby WalMart and was on his way home. In recent days, he had started to stop to check to see what he could see of the spill on the beaches. On Saturday, he said he saw oily specks washing ashore. On Sunday, he didn’t see much of anything, other than a goo-covered empty Gatorade bottle that washed ashore.

“It should be a wake-up call to the oil companies and government,” Femrite said. “They should have better procedures in place in case something happens. I don’t know if the ecosystem will ever recover.”

A couple of miles away, National Park Service Ranger Mark Whipps dug into the sand near the tide line to see if any oil detritus had been buried in the white sand. “I’m extremely ecstatic that it’s not deep,” said Whipps, who had been sent from his regular park (Natchez Trace near Tupelo, Miss.,) to Gulf Islands for a 14-day tour of patrolling the beach.
As about 20 contract workers prepared to look for oil pollution on the beach, he noted, “One of the good things since I’ve been here is the crews have gotten here right away. It’s kind of an ongoing process.”

If you’d like to see more pictures of the weekend trip, visit a new photo blog that will chronicle what’s happening along the Gulf. Go to: www.BetterGulf.org.

Photo: This oil-covered plastic bottle washed onto the beach at Gulf Islands National Seashore Sunday just south of Pensacola Beach, Fla.

Andy Brack is publisher of CharlestonCurrents.com and president of the Center for a Better South, which is offering the photo blog as a way to keep track of how the spill is impacting people’s lives. Brack can be reached at: [email protected]

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Andy Brack

Andy Brack

Andy Brack is a syndicated columnist in South Carolina and the publisher of StatehouseReport.com. Brack, who holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also publishes a twice-weekly newsletter about good news in the Charleston area, CharlestonCurrents.com. A former U.S. Senate press secretary and reporter, Brack has a national reputation as a communications strategist and Internet pioneer. Brack also is president and chairman of the Center for a Better South, a nonprofit regional think tank. Brack received a bachelor’s degree from Duke University. He, his wife, two daughters and dogs live in Charleston, S.C.