Gulf Shores, after the spill

Published 8:38 pm Saturday, August 28, 2010

A number of weeks ago, just days after the tragic explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico and the initial reports of oil gushing into the Gulf, I wrote a column detailing my heartsick feelings about the oil spill that would no doubt impact my home.

Growing up along the Gulf Coast, I had taken for granted the sugar-white beaches, and the thought of them covered in oil was understandably troubling.

Just a day or two after the column appeared, I received an email from someone who lives along the beach in Gulf Shores, who, in no uncertain terms, criticized me for making far too much of the event and said that no oil had touched the beaches.

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While wrong in my comments that oil had hit the beaches in south Alabama, I ended up being wrong only in timing.

Not too long after that critical email, oil did wash up on the beaches where I had spent many a spring and summer afternoon, where I played volleyball with friends and spent spring breaks doing what high school and college kids do best.

A little more than two weeks ago, I took a weeklong vacation to visit friends and family and to check out the beaches for myself. It was not the sole purpose of my trip, but it was definitely on the “to-do” list.

As I drove the main thoroughfare toward Pleasure Island (the island that is home to both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach in south Alabama), there were a number of things that jumped out. The first thing I quickly noticed was the lack of traffic; the second, the number of closed businesses.

It was not uncommon, even for a Monday morning, to have to spend 45 minutes to an hour to make your way onto the island. This day, we simply drove right in, slowed only by red lights.

Businesses that were often swarmed with tourists clamoring for an airbrushed t-shirt or seashell, were closed or operating fewer days and fewer hours.

But once on the beach, what I found was familiar and comforting. It was beach … plain, simple and oil-free.

Through the efforts of local and state officials, the sugar-white beaches I knew growing up were as clean as I ever remembered. There weren’t as many people as there should have been for a beautiful August morning, but the beaches were clean nonetheless.

A little farther down the beach was the staging ground for BP cleanup equipment, state work trucks and municipal vehicles. It was nearly abandoned, as workers were there simply to take inventory as the equipment was prepared to be sent back to where it came from or to areas still affected by the oil.

The locals spoke the name “BP” mostly in vain. Just like the staging ground for the work vehicles, they had felt somewhat abandoned in the effort to get reimbursements and much-needed aid.

In my mind, I had feared the worst for my home and in some ways those fears had come true. The environmental impact may take years to truly understand, but the economic impact was immediate.

But this area has a way of coming back bigger and better than before. Ask any local about the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach they knew before Hurricane Frederic in 1977 and the recovery effort they went in the storm’s aftermath.

The Gulf Coast has made it through the worst Mother Nature could throw at it and thrived in its aftermath. Just imagine what it can do after recovering from a little something that was man-made.