BP oil spill: A subdued Fourth of July on Louisiana's Grand Isle

Fourth of July weekend should bring thousands of tourists to Louisiana's Grand Isle. But the BP oil spill leaves beaches nearly deserted. A concert is planned to help fishing and tourism.

By , Correspondent

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    A flock of seagulls are the only visitors at Grand Isle State Park in Louisiana. The beach and water are off limits because of the BP oil spill. This has kept people away at what should be the height of the tourist season.
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Along state Highway 1 on Grand Isle, La., a flagpole in one yard is flying the Stars and Stripes at half staff and upside down. The Bridge Side Marina has canceled its annual Fourth of July fireworks display. The marina owners say they’re worried that the pyrotechnics could ignite oil floating in nearby Caminada Bay.

On the holiday weekend during what should be the height of Grand Isle’s summer season, life on the island has been turned upside down.

BP spill-response workers and National Guard soldiers have taken over the campgrounds, motels, and restaurants that would normally throng with summertime visitors. The beaches are vacant except for empty picnic tables, thousands of yards of neon-orange solid boom, and workers in hazmat suits cleaning up oil from the blown BP oil well 50 miles offshore. The oil company has taken over the town’s community center, where its representatives meet with local fishermen and business owners to discuss claims.

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The only inhabited barrier island in the state, Grand Isle for generations has been Louisiana's Cape Cod. Although Louisianans enjoy thousands of miles of coastline, they have just a few sand beaches to visit and Grand Isle's is one of two that can be reached without a boat.

Where are the tourists?

Grand Isle’s permanent population of 1,500 normally swells to 10,000 during the summer, but this July local residents say that maybe 100 tourists are here on any given day. Nearly all of the vacation cottages along Highway 1 sit empty, and full-time residents – who have taken to installing inflatable pools in their yards for their children – fear for their property values.

“It’s heartbreaking,” says Tracy Talbot, a real estate broker in New Orleans who grew up spending summers on Grand Isle and now owns a 120-year-old house on the island. “This is affecting people who have been on Grand Isle for generations and were already struggling to stay, with the low prices in the seafood industry, with all the hurricanes, and now this oil.”

Just over a month ago, Ms. Talbot watched from the end of the fishing pier at Grand Isle State Park as the first oil came ashore.

“You could look down and see a sheen that looked like baby oil,” she remembers. “Then globs of oil washed in that seemed to have been diluted by dispersants. It was a burgundy color and looked like jelly.”

Since then, thousands of gallons of crude oil have covered a 30-mile stretch of beaches from Port Fourchon to Grand Terre Island.

Last July, the state park had 10,000 visitors. On a recent weekend, only two of its 50 camping spots were occupied by vacationers, though perhaps 1,000 BP contractors speed through the gate every day on their way to clean up tar balls and oil. The park’s beautiful Gulf-fed salt water lagoon, home to dozens of shorebirds, was recently closed to the public after oil seeped in with the tide.

Sue Galliano, a long time Grand Isle resident who owns rental properties and runs an electrical contracting company with her husband, was recently part of a group of congregants from four churches that held a sunset prayer vigil for the Gulf’s wildlife and the island’s future.

It’s like watching a sick friend get worse, she says. “You know there’s a treatment out there that could help but you can’t get it.” Ms. Galliano’s daughter, who lives in New Orleans and has twin girls who are four months old, canceled plans to spend this summer on the island out of worry about toxic fumes from the spill.

While 2010 has brought perhaps the bleakest summer in the island’s long history, Grand Isle residents and visitors who love it are planning for the island’s future.

An aid concert scheduled

The Grand Isle Tarpon Fishing Rodeo, which normally brings 20,000 participants for a weekend in July, has been canceled for the first time. In its place, an Island Aid Concert has been scheduled for July 24. Proceeds will go to the Grand Isle Alive Promotion Fund, which will aid recreational fishing and tourism.

Five prominent chefs of national renown, led by Tom Colicchio of cable TV’s “Top Chef,” paid a visit to Grand Isle to support the Gulf region’s seafood.

“You have my pledge that I will have Gulf seafood at all of my restaurants,” Mr. Colicchio told a crowd gathered at a food tasting at the Sound Side Marina. Proceeds raised by the event benefited Friends of the Fishermen Fund, a recently created charity supporting the state’s fishing and seafood industries.

“No one knows what will happen in the next year,” said Galliano, who says she often smells the oil slicks when the wind is right. “Friends from all over are e-mailing me constantly saying they want to come volunteer and help with the cleanup, but there’s no way you can help with that. We’re fortunate to have so many people who are reaching out in other ways.”

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