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A WFAE Dispatch From The Gulf

WFAE's Julie Rose

As the Gulf oil spill stretches into its third month, reporting the story has become a marathon for national news outlets. NPR has been rotating a team of reporters through the region since the day the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. WFAE's Julie Rose has been part of that team this week and sends a postcard from New Orleans. I made sure to pack old shoes when I left for New Orleans because - from what I'd seen on the news - there was black gunk rolling up on every Gulf beach. I figured I'd be slogging through it. The massive slick is so huge that it would stretch from Charlotte to Raleigh and up past the Virginia state line. But the Gulf of Mexico is also very big and after six days here, I have yet to see any oil. One day I drove a couple of hours to Gulfport, Miss., where reports had starting come in of gushy patties of tar washing up with the waves. I ran into Reggie and Vickie Tatum taking a stroll along the water. They were on vacation from Jackson and I wanted to know if they'd seen any oil, because there wasn't a drop on the beach where we stood. Here's what they said: "The media has killed the tourism," Reggie says. "From the restaurants to the hotels I think it's put a big damper on it," Vickie adds. "I know it's a big deal. But it's not here yet, the beaches are empty. And there's gotta be a reason for that." The governors of Mississippi and Alabama have been complaining about the same thing for weeks. Only in the last few days has oil actually begun washing up consistently on many of the gulf's popular beaches, mainly because of rough seas from Hurricane Alex. But perception is everything in tourism. I met a wedding planner in Gulfport who says his business is dead because nobody wants to risk exchanging romantic vows on an oily beach. Constant media images of suffering pelicans and oil-soaked marsh do give the impression that the spill has come ashore probably more than it actually has. But you can't understate the harm the spill is doing to the small fishing villages that dot the gulf. "It's heartbreaking to me to even think of doing something else," says 22-year-old Johnathan Cross. I found Johnathan wearing a life jacket and hard hat, waiting for his next shift cleaning up oil off the southern tip of St. Bernard's parish outside New Orleans. "I dropped out in 9th grade, I wish I wouldn't have, but I did and it's - it's either this. I could probably go work cutting grass somewhere, but I mean it's not what I do. I do crabbing and shrimping and fishing all my life. And now this oil spill - they say they got it out there right now it's gonna come in here sooner or later and it's gonna kill me." The other thing he said - and this actually took me by surprise at first - is that these fishing villages felt like they were just getting back on their feet after four long years recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Naively, I had assumed things were back to normal years ago. I've been genuinely shocked to find streets were nearly all the homes are still vacant and boarded up. Down on the bayou in a town called Hopedale, Diane Phillips invited me to join her on the makeshift porch of her trailer. It's on the site of the fishing marina and rental business she used to run. Before Katrinia, she says the business was "knocking down close to a million dollars a year." People stop by every few minutes as we talk. The conversation almost always turns to fretting about the spill. It's the uncertainty that seems to bother people the most. When will they plug the leak? How much oil has really gushed out? What will it do to the coast tomorrow, or 10 years from now? Will the fish and shrimp and oysters survive? Will I have to give up the only life I've ever known? It's one thing to go back to my hotel each night and retell the stories I've heard. I can't imagine what it's like to be living the story.