The biggest lesson I learned from our trip to the Gulf is that just because a story makes headlines, doesn’t mean the information is true. As a society (and I admit being guilty of this) we have a bad habit of taking what the media and “experts” say at face value.
But as most spokespersons who handled communication efforts surrounding the BP oil spill admitted to our group, no one was absolutely certain of anything! How many deaths after the explosion? How much oil actually spewed from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig from April 20 to July 15, 2010? Is the seafood safe to eat? Are the beaches contaminated, and is it safe to swim?
During the spill, the media provided so many conflicting answers to these questions, and few of us knew whom to trust. Between BP, the federal government, the media, businesses, nonprofit organizations and experts in related fields, accuracy was hard to come by. And today, nine months after the explosion and subsequent spill, many uncertainties remain. What really happened to all that oil? What are the long-term effects on the ecosystem, the wildlife? What are the health risks?
Our class set out to look at the nuances of communicating the facts of the spill in this era of instant, 24/7 news and social media. But in the process, we also learned many facts about the spill, the fragile condition of the Gulf Coast and the Louisiana wetlands, the significance of the oil industry to the economy in the region, and the character of the people who live, work and preserve the land. Following is what I consider to be a modest summary of the information from our trip. But first, here are three myths that I believed prior to the trip:
Myth 1: Oil has tainted the Gulf, making it a distasteful and hazardous place to visit.
Myth 2: Seafood is unsafe to eat.
Myth 3: Gulf Coast states blame the oil industry and favor the drilling moratorium.
I feel one of the biggest misunderstandings is that the oceans and beaches along the Gulf are still dirty and contaminated with oil. Tourism was hit hard as a result of the public’s fear that the region was spoiled and unsafe. Alabama beaches remained oil-free for nearly two months after the spill, but visitors canceled vacation plans and tourism plummeted after headlines incorrectly reported that oil would hit the shores.
We learned from Herb Malone, CEO and President of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism, that tourism for summer 2010 was predicted to hit an all-time high. Despite the optimistic estimate, the region lost close to $100 million as a result of fewer visitors. Like Alabama, the economies in Grand Isle, La., and Ocean Springs, Miss., (where we also visited) suffered from a loss in tourism.
Based on conflicting reports, I wasn’t sure what to expect when we visited the coast. What I found were the clearest blue waters and whitest sand beaches that I have ever seen in the United States. If I could emphasize only one point from our entire trip, it would be that the Gulf is beautiful and in need of vacationers now more than ever.
The issue over whether seafood from the Gulf is safe to eat is still highly controversial and widely misunderstood. Until we met oyster distributor Sal Sunseri, owner of P&J Oysters, which has been in business in New Orleans for 135 years, we all thought that oil ruined oysters in the Gulf. Sunseri explained that the Mississippi River was flooded with freshwater to prevent the oil from moving even further into the Gulf. Oysters live in what are called estuaries, composed of a combination of freshwater from the Mississippi and saltwater from the Gulf. By flooding huge amounts of freshwater into the estuaries, the balance was disrupted and the oysters died.
True, in some areas oil did in fact taint the seafood, but the strict testing method is making sure no tainted seafood reaches stores and restaurants. Several speakers, including John Deveney, President of Deveney Communication, explained that increased regulations and testing have made Gulf seafood the “most tested and safest” product in America. Despite Deveney’s assertion, many people are still apprehensive. The economy has not only been hit hard by the slump in tourism, but also from the drop in the seafood industry.
After hearing how much the seafood industry has suffered since the spill, I made it a point to eat it on a regular basis throughout the trip and ordered it nearly every time we ate out. It was wonderful. In my opinion, if restaurants can serve it, I can eat it!
I was stunned that practically no one we talked to condemned the oil industry. In fact, almost everyone agreed that oil was an integral part of life in the Gulf region, particularly in Louisiana. However, they all agree that stricter safety regulations must be imposed to prevent future spills.
Several speakers described the relationship between their states and the oil industry as symbiotic. The oil industry has provided employment for millions of men and women since drilling began off the coast. People don’t have to agree with the politics surrounding the issue, but few can argue against the fact that the economy depends on the oil. Louisiana fishermen, shrimpers, and oyster harvesters often work for oil companies during their off-season. It is also typical for one spouse to work in the seafood business, while the other works in the oil trade. Since the spill, both industries have come to a halt, leaving thousands unemployed.
Nearly everyone we talked to expressed frustration toward the moratorium and seemed eager to begin drilling again. There is no doubt that higher regulations and safer practices must be enforced to prevent spills of this extreme in the future, but the business cannot be stopped. It is important for all Americans to understand the culture of the region and realize that the livelihood of society depends on the strategic balance between the people and the industry. It is unrealistic to think that drilling can just stop. One cannot survive without the other, so now the people in the Gulf states must strive to find an ideal balance.
During J-Term 2011, students in the class "Environmental Communications" traveled to the Gulf Coast to examine lessons learned from the BP oil spill. Read their blog.