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Oil spill closes Grand Isle beach at key time for tourism
By Paul Rioux, The Times-Picayune
May 21, 2010, 7:33PM
Curiosity seekers check out the clumps of oil that have closed Grand Isle's beaches.As oil washed ashore on Grand Isle from the incessant Gulf of Mexico well leak, town officials closed the beaches indefinitely Friday, just when the first big waves of vacationers would normally descend on the tourism-dependent barrier island.
The seven-mile-long beach was coated with a band of slick brown residue and almost deserted, and officials feared thicker oil offshore could reach the coastline in the coming days.
"It's really heartbreaking. It makes me sick to see it," said Russell Trapp, a Baton Rouge resident who owns a fishing camp on the island. "The worst part is that there's a lot more oil out there and a lot more coming unless they get that leak shut off."
Oil fouls the beach.A month after the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig sent crude oil gushing into the gulf, oil began washing ashore in the Grand Isle area Thursday and spread Friday.
"This is absolutely the worst-case scenario for Grand Isle to lose tourism revenue for May and June and possibly beyond," Jefferson Parish Councilman Chris Roberts said. "This is the time of year they rely on to make their living."
Roberts said town officials are seeking to lease barges to seal off passes to protect the vital Caminada Bay fishery. The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Department has closed the state waters off Grand Isle, including Elmer's Island, but for now the back bays north of Grand Isle and the Caminada Bay fishing pier remain open.
The leak threatens the island's biggest annual event, the International Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo, first held in 1928. It's still scheduled July 22, 23 and 24, but officials are considering whether to go forward with it and in what form.
The beach closure went into effect at noon and will remain in place until further notice, said Nora Combel of the mayor's office. She said trespassers will be asked to leave.
But no one disturbed Lisa Lopez reading a book Friday afternoon in a beach chair about 10 feet from the oily shoreline.
"I'm just happy to sit in the sun and listen to the sound of the waves," said Lopez, a New Iberia resident vacationing with her family. "I don't usually go in the water anyway."
It was a different story for her children, who were growing bored of playing in the sand and prompted Lopez to cut the vacation short.
Camp rental businesses reported a high number of cancellations as the usual end-of-the-work-week wave of tourists was replaced by a trickle of curiosity seekers. Alabama resident Sandy Files, who was visiting New Orleans, decided to take a day trip to Grand Isle after seeing news reports of oil coming ashore.
"I was scared I was going to see a black beach," she said. "This isn't that bad yet, but everyone says it could just be the prelude to something that's going to be a lot worse."
"I know you're not supposed to go in the water, but I had to see for myself," she said. "My feet feel like I just put Wesson oil on them."
While scouring the beaches, scientists with the Wildlife and Fisheries Department discovered a dead northern gannet, a large migratory sea bird. They are typically white. This one was covered in oil and emulsified tar. Scientists will run tests on the bird to determine whether it died from oil exposure or other causes, officials said.
Throughout the day, locals remarked about the light traffic on the thoroughfare that runs the length of the island.
At Sarah's Restaurant late in the afternoon, the only customers were two news reporters and a photographer who were covering the leak and needed a place to plug in their portable computers.
"I've never seen a Friday as bad as this," co-owner Annette Rigaud said. "Business is down 80 percent since the spill. It's worrying me to death."
Rigaud's family has owned the restaurant for 40 years and refurbished it several times after hurricanes, most recently in 2008 after Gustav.
"After a storm, you start over the next day, clean it up and reopen as soon as they will let you," Rigaud said. "This is not like that at all. We don't know how long this oil will be here and how long before the tourists come back."
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