Oil-tainted gulf beach leaves a bitter trail

  • Fri May 21st, 2010 10:25pm
  • News

McClatchy Newspapers

GRAND ISLE, La. — The first wave of oil swept onto the beach. The tourists swept out.

The few people who bothered to visit Grand Isle Beach Friday came out of morbid curiosity, to see the proliferating drips and blotches and puddles and pools the color of Coca-Cola.

“My God, our beach should be crowded, the start of a big weekend,” said Lynette Anderson, surveying the ruinous mess along the surf line. “We kept hoping it was going to miss us. Should have known better.”

The gooey, adhesive stuff portended an economic disaster for Grand Isle, the only inhabited island on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. Tourists keep this beach town alive. The tourists had vanished.

“All of them canceled on me,” said Lisa Rhobus, who runs the Cajun Holiday Motel. Every room had been booked for the weekend. But her parking lot was empty Friday afternoon.

Grand Isle, a mile wide, hardly eight miles long, offers a brutal model in miniature of what a giant oil spill brings to a tourism economy built around the beach and the sea. The town, with only 1,500 permanent residents, lives off the 300,000 visitors a year who come to fish and swim and play on the beach and bath in the Gulf of Mexico waters. None of that was evident Friday.

“The only paying people I have at Cajun Holiday are workers helping with the clean-up,” Rhobus said. “This could just about kill Grand Isle.”

If Florida wants to regard Grand Isle as a laboratory to study the effects on tourism from that dark swill spewing from the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon, early indications look near fatal. Grand Isle’s mayor closed the beach Friday afternoon but his order was not much more than an empty gesture. An obvious question hung over a mostly empty strand: Closed to whom?

Just across Caminada Pass, a surly Jefferson Parish deputy sheriff guarded the entrance to the beach and wildlife reserve on Elmer’s Island, another local tourist favorite, as if keeping the media away would keep the news of the island’s defiled sand and poisoned marshes from reaching the mainland.

“You wonder why all the hostility,” said John Hazlett, a University of New Orleans literature professor, who, like a Miami Herald reporter and photographer, was turned away.

But the mood all along the Louisiana coast was turning bitter this week, a month after the oil rig exploded 50 miles out in the Gulf, as the spill finally reached the coast. The ecological and economic damage was finally transformed from speculation to reality.

The tidal pools along the long rock jetty protecting the west end of the island were tinged with orange with dark splotches, like brown lily pads. A scattering of dead hermit crabs offered proof of the water’s sudden toxicity.

“I waded out there and you could feel the oil coming underneath the surface on your legs,” said Todd Vegas, who had abandoned plans to spend the weekend fishing off Grand Isle. “Even if you can’t see it on top, it’s coming in underwater.”

And the stuff reaching the shore Friday was just the beginning of awful news for the island community. Helicopters flying over the Gulf waters spotted a monstrous mass of oil seven miles off Grand Isle.

“It’s coming our way,” another deputy told me. “All that oil you’re seeing on Grand Isle beach now. That’s nothing compared to what’s coming.”

“This is like something out of a sci-fi movie,” said Vegas, as he contemplated that giant slow-moving underwater cloud, like an alien invasion hovering in space, that threatens so much ruin along coastal Louisiana.

“Did you say you were from Florida?” Vegas asked. “Hey man. All this … it’s coming your way.”