Sunday, December 19, 2010

Team Blogger: Anisha Hegde

Sunday morning on a small island with a population of 1,500 always begins the same way—with church. So the Rooseveltors decided to divide and conquer three church services (Baptist, Episcopalian, and Methodist) to obtain the full Dauphin Island experience and hopefully get a chance to converse with more locals.

I, along with Dr. Rhodes and Jonathan, chose to attend the Baptist Church. About half of the service attendees consisted of “Snowbirds,” individuals—mostly retirees—who travel down to warmer locals every winter. Most of the snowbirds that venture to Dauphin Island are followers of the migratory pattern of birds, which really reiterated the interconnectedness of preserving the bird habitat and the tourism industry of the island.

The members of the Episcopalian church also paid for us to have “Save Our Gumbo” t-shirts, proceeds from which go to individuals affected adversely by the spill. These t-shirts are stocked by Mack 'n' Dd's Emporium, whose owner—Mack Russell—granted us an interview. According to Russell, his business this summer was down 80% from the year before, a real loss for a business that has only been around for two years and was hoping to attract regular summer customers from all around the country interested in purchasing locally made trinkets and art.

Russell did file a claim with BP and with the government in order to get compensated, but according to him the biggest problem is that the island residents “just don’t know” the real impacts of the oil spill and its long-term implications for tourism.
“Without clean beaches and habitats for birds, we don’t get tourism. This means bad news for Dauphin Island—an end destination that people don’t pass through in order to get somewhere else.”

Our next interview was with Mary Lee Montgomery, BP’s Community Outreach Coordinator for Alabama. She took us to the west end of the island to see some of the active BP work sites and shared with us a wealth of information concerning the clean up process. She told us that all across the island, workers drill holes into the sand in order to determine where exactly the oil is sitting and then clean affected areas with power screens, giant machines that filter the clean sand from the oil drenched sand. Additionally, we learned that the tar picked up from the sand is oftentimes recycled into asphalt.

Montomgery told us that, so far, BP has given the state of Alabama ¾ of a billion dollars and has voluntarily agreed to level the berms that Dauphin Island erected to keep the oil from reaching farther inland.

Montgomery also gave us a completely different perspective on the oil spill and its implications for the future, a perspective much more optimistic than the opinions were had previously heard. She was formerly a Red Cross worker from Mobile who was contacted by BP for her expertise in dealing with disaster relief, and she emphasized BP’s dedication to hiring locals and making sure that the machine and manual operations still occurring on the island are as least invasive as possible, allowing residents to stroll and walk their dogs on the beach. She also said that the deep cleaning operations going on right now are expected to end by February 1, just in time for Spring Break, and that after the big machines leave, spot cleaning crews will clean up any recurring tar balls.

We were also able to talk to another BP contractor, Larry Morris. He told us that the BP sites were regularly inspected by multiple state and federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. From him, we found out that BP holds a meeting on the island every evening in order to assess the progress each work site is making.

Both Montgomery and Morris seemed to agree that the biggest problem with the clean up process was the uncertainty and inexperience with which all agencies and companies had to approach the issue. “This whole operation has changed from hour to hour,” said Montgomery. “The ocean has literally made the operation fluid.” She also offered her opinion on the long-term impacts of the dispersants, stating that she believed them to be “no worse than baby shampoo,” and emphasized, “BP is a private company. It wasn’t used to being transparent—it didn’t have to be.” She said that after BP realized the benefits of transparency, its relations with affected communities improved greatly.

Our last interview was with Mary Scarcliff, owner of the Lighthouse Bakery, and her husband Daniel Scarcliff. Ms. Scarcliff was the first business owner we had interviewed who had not filed a claim. Like most other people on the island, she blames the media more than BP for the downturn in tourism and the negative image of the gulf. Ms. Scarcliff was instrumental in organizing the BP lunch program, in which local restaurant owners cater for the BP workers. Scarcliff said, “I didn’t want a handout; I wanted to work.” Today, the Scarcliffs’ biggest problem also has to do with the ambiguousness of several BP processes, specifically the billing procedures.

In our down time, the Rooseveltors also visited the beach—building sandcastles, skipping rocks, and attempting to take artsy pictures, a moment ruined by BP vehicles carrying port-a-potties through the sand. We also visited the Magic Christmas in Lights show at Bellingrath gardens, an experience that paralleled any I’ve ever had at Lake Lanier’s or Calloway Garden’s Christmas shows.

Our time on the island has definitely been enjoyable. We were able to see most of the local attractions and gather really interesting insights from everyone we interviewed.

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