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How The BP Spill may help Gulf coast businesses cope with COVID-19

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An Alabama Public Radio news feature, which is part of APR effort to address the "news desert" along the state's Gulf coast. APR recruited and trained veteran print journalists in Mobile and Baldwin counties to join our news team to do radio stories from along the Gulf coast.

The beaches along Alabama’s coast remain closed due to the outbreak of Coronavirus. The sight of empty hotels, restaurants, and tourist destinations in Mobile and Baldwin is eerily similar to ten years ago. That’s when the BP Oil spill shut down Alabama’s lucrative coastal tourism industry. There were concerns that the 2010 spill would devastate tourism for years. Instead, the industry roared back the next year and has been setting records since then. That has some coastal residents optimistic in the face of COVID-19.

Ten years ago, Alabama Gulf Coast residents were looking forward to a busy tourist season. Spring break crowds filled beaches. The months ahead looked great. A few days later, the sands were empty. Signs posted on the beach warned of health hazards. These last few weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak have brought back memories of 2010 for some who were here then.

“Ten years and we’re going through something like this again and stuff. It’s amazing,” says Trish Kerr. She and her family have run The Sand Box souvenir store on Dauphin Island since 1974. On a recent afternoon, she looked past the “Closed” sign on her door at a quiet beach highway.

"I’m not trying to dwell on what’s happening now,” she says. “It’s just very ironic that it seems like it’s 10 years and we’re going through it again, but in a totally different way.”

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Dauphin Island, Alabama

In 2010, people could go on the beaches, but the public reaction kept most visitors away.

“It hit us in May and we did not have a good summer,” says Kerr. “I would say it was probably two years before we really kicked back into shape. You’ve got to understand too, we had just gotten over Katrina. We were just starting to get the island going again and then the BP thing hit and it took us a year to a year and a half to convince people that you could eat the seafood. You could swim in the water. You could go on the beach and not get tar on your feet.”

Gulf Coast residents are used to dealing with storms like hurricane Katrina and other potential threats, but the 2010 oil spill was something new.

“When we woke up one day and found out that there was oil headed toward our beaches. We first didn’t have a clue what to do because we’d never experienced something like that,” says Herb Malone. He’s director of Gulf Shores-Orange Beach Tourism and the local convention and visitors bureau.

“However, to our benefit, all of us, all of our organizations, all governmental organizations, all businesses practically, have a plan, a crisis plan because of the inevitable hurricane that’s going to come in the future,” says Malone. “We really pulled that out and literally started to scratch out hurricane and put in the name BP Oil Spill.”

Within days, local officials, including Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft and Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon, were meeting with community leaders to start planning strategy. The group became known officially at the Coastal Resiliency Coalition. Most people just called it the War Room. For a long time, no one knew what to expect.

“We had an expectation that we were going to lose the summer,” says Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Department of Tourism. “The great fear at that time was for the summer of 2010 that families from Michigan and Indiana and Ohio would say ‘let’s go to the mountains because we’ve never been to the mountains in Tennessee and we were afraid that they would get there and say ‘oh, gosh, this is great, let’s do this again next summer,” says Sentell.

People did come back. Tourism numbers were up 22 ½ percent on the coast in 2011, which meant a 12 percent jump in statewide totals. Lee Sentell says that even before the spill was over, the tourist industry was working to bring visitors back to Alabama beaches.

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Orange Beach, Alabama

“Instead of waiting for recovery, we did a TV commercial,” says Sentell. “So we knew it was not a question of if we were going to recover or when it was going to get cleaned up, but to be prepared for when it did.”

Malone says they’re already making similar plans for this year due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The competition’s going to more intense this time, however.

“We also know that every one of our competitors, including every cruise line and everybody in the mountains and everywhere else is competing for people to come visit,” says Malone. “The competition is going to be much higher because they’ll all be coming out at one time.”

Then and now, businesses have had to scramble and find ways to stay afloat since the COVID-19 situation is under control.

“Business was very bad, but I am of the opinion that the restaurant business is an athletic event and you’ve got to win,” says Richard Schwartz. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to stay open and whatever.”

Schwartz’s company owns several restaurants in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. In 2010, business came to a stop within days of the spill. He went to a staging area at Perdido Pass, standing outside a locked fence trying to get business providing food to cleanup crews.

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“We stood there and had people come out,” Schwartz recalls. “It was hot – hot, hot, hot. And I stood there and we must have looked like idiots and this guy stopped and said ‘what are y’all doing out here?”

A supervisor ordered 110 lunches for the next day. That led to other business.

“In those two days by getting out of the car and standing in the hot sun, we got hooked up doing catering for, it turned out to be, a whole lot of people over a long period of time,” says Schwartz. “So, that’s really what saved our company. It’s all a question of, I don’t know, luck. I’d rather be lucky than good. It was an experience that really made you understand how important… I don’t know, you can’t quit.”

Ten years later, the impact of the Coronavirus was sudden and unexpected again.

“I was looking forward to things booming and it did pretty good,” he says. “Right after Valentine’s Day, business was moving right along and up until we had to shut down, it was moving right along. But we had to shut down because that’s what we were ordered to do and that’s what we did.”

Schwartz says businesses are again adapting, serving take-out food and preparing “Meals on Wheels” for a local church. He says business will recover, but things won’t be the same right away.

“When it first happened, we had to remove tables and lower the density in the restaurant and we did that and I told them yesterday that when we have to come back, we’re not going to be, people are not going to want to sit as tight as they have been sitting, so we’re going to not make them do that,” he says. “It’s part of what we do. I’m glad to do that. Happy. I enjoy doing it. It’s what we do, we feed people."

On Dauphin Island, Trish Kerr says the experience of the oil spill and hurricanes will help Alabama’s Gulf Coast weather this storm. “I think it affected the people on the island more, the residents, because we weren’t allowed to go places that were on our island and they were shut off to us and it angered a lot of people and stuff, but we got through it,” says Kerr. “We’ll get through this one. It’s just, we’re a very resilient island. We really are and the people all stick together and, you know, that’s what makes a small community great to live in.”

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