JACKSON – In recent years, Gulf Coast legislators have unsuccessfully offered proposals to push back the date for the start of school in Mississippi.
A later start, they argued, would help tourism on the Gulf Coast.
But this has been the summer of the BP oil spill, and whether such a schedule change would help tourism on the Coast this year is debatable.
But it is one more cruel twist of fate for the hard-hit Mississippi Gulf Coast, where the situation appears finally to be improving at about the same time school is starting.
“Everything is back open,” said Tom Becker, captain of the charter boat The Skipper and president of the Mississippi Charter Boats Association. “The waters are open. But school has started.”
And that means business is slow.
Becker said he has a charter excursion scheduled for later this month, but as he talked during the middle of last week nothing else was scheduled. Other charter boat captains are in similar situations.
And even if the waters are open, the question lingers: Are people willing to fish and eat catches after months of hearing about the spill and then about the possible harm from the chemical dispersants used to fight the oil?
“I can personally attest that the seafood is good,” Becker said. “I have eaten some since the waters have been reopened.”
Becker and others pointed out the Gulf seafood is probably the most tested of any seafood in history as government officials take extreme measures to ensure its safety.
Despite such reassurances, no one has a real handle on what looms as a result of the disaster.
“The main thing is uncertainty,” said House Conservation Chairman John Mayo, D-Clarksdale. “I have been down to the Coast four times, officially taking other members of the House to see the conditions on the Coast.
“It gives the members from north Mississippi an opportunity to see what the Coast is going through. This was supposed to be the year for the recovery from Katrina. As it turned out, just the opposite happened.”
Katrina struck in August 2005, followed by years of recovery and then a national recession, which Becker said resulted in 2009 being the worst in recent memory for charter boats.
But that was before the oil leak of 2010, caused by the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform off the Louisiana coast in April and resulting in another dreary summer tourism season.
During his visits to the Coast, Mayo has talked to restaurant owners who have been hit hard during what was supposed to be their busy summer season. They wonder if they can make it through the winter.
He has met with seafood processors who have lost their business because of the closure of the waters to fishing and with fishing tournament operators who had to cancel events or transfer them to other locales.
He has talked with charter boat operators like Becker who fear they might lose their once-loyal clients who most likely visited other locations this summer.
And that’s the concern expressed by Richard Forester, executive director of the Gulf Coast Visitors and Convention Bureau. Will regular visitors to the Coast return if they went somewhere else this summer?
“The hope is they will come back,” he said. “We are doing some work to make sure they do.”
Just to look at the numbers, Forester said, tourism was not off as much as people might think. Casino gambling revenue was up some from last year’s recession numbers, and hotel and motel occupancy rates were at 85 percent.
But a lot of the hotel occupancy, he said, was driven by BP employees who worked to ensure the beaches and waters were protected from the oil leak.
“They didn’t spend a lot of money down here,” Forester said. “They worked hard, went to McDonald’s, probably bought a six-pack of beer and went back to their rooms because they were tired. They didn’t take advantage of the attractions.”
Rep. Scott Delano, R-Biloxi, said he is confident people will return because of the Coast’s unique attractions – the casinos, fishing, golfing and other activities.
The area, he said, “is known for some of the best fishing on the Gulf Coast, if not the eastern seaboard.”
House Speaker Pro Tem J.P. Compretta, D-Bay St. Louis, cited other positives – the valuable oyster reefs near Pass Christian in western Harrison County do not appear to have been hurt. He said he recently ate some speckled trout caught by his son and son-in-law.
“It was good,” he said. But, he said when the winds and tides are just right, he still finds oil in the moist grass in eastern Hancock County.
He said state officials are working to clean that up.
Mississippi never was hit as hard by oil from the spill as were Louisiana and some other areas. Throughout the summer, Gov. Haley Barbour complained that the biggest impact on the Mississippi Gulf Coast from the oil spill was the drop-off in tourism.
“We still have some tar balls wash up occasionally,” said Sen. Tommy Moffett, R-Gautier. “But 70 years ago my daddy used to spank my backside for playing with those. I know this is different, but physically I think we are in good shape.”
Moffett is a member of a commission formed recently by the governor “to report on the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and aid in the development of a long-term vision to enhance the Gulf of Mexico for the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”
Attorney General Jim Hood also has been working to see that the claims filed with BP because of losses caused by the April 20 oil spill are honored.
Barbour has asked Hood not to sue BP, saying legal action could result in the company ceasing to pay claims.
BP has committed to pay for losses, such as in wages, caused by the oil spill, though some have complained about how BP is honoring – or not honoring – that commitment.
Hood said he does not know whether he will ultimately file a lawsuit.
“Once we calculate all our damages, and BP pays, there won’t be any need to file a lawsuit,” Hood said in describing what he would consider a best-case scenario.
But for the state and individuals, the process of filing claims is complex because of the uncertainty felt on the Coast about when and indeed whether tourists will return.
What occurred this summer is evident. But if the tourists do not return next summer because of this year’s oil spill, or if there is long-lasting environmental damage, how is that impact calculated? How is the lost revenue incurred by the state and local governments in future years factored in?
“I want to make sure some legal assistance is available,” Hood said. “It is a complicated deal to figure out three years in the future what your losses will be.”
During the 2010 session, state legislation is expected to be filed to deal with some of the issues surrounding the oil spill. Both the House and the Senate have held hearings to look at various oil spill-related issues.
And more than likely, one piece of legislation will be another effort to push back the start of school.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bobby Harrison / Daily Journal Jackson Bureau