Hit in the wallet and fearing for a way of life, Gulf residents seek more than talk from Obama

By Jay Reeves, AP
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Gulf residents seek more than talk from Obama

ORANGE BEACH, Ala. — Restaurant owner Regina Shipp was near desperation before President Barack Obama’s address on the Gulf oil crisis. The tourists are gone, empty tables fill her dockside dining room, and her business has lost $57,000 after just a few weeks of crude and tar balls smearing the coast.

Afterward, she sounded more hopeful, but not much. At this point, it’s going to take much more than an Oval Office talk to make life better on the oil-stained coast.

“He said he’s going to make BP pay. Can he? Can he?” said Shipp, standing amid a sea of empty tables at Shipp’s Harbour Grill, which she owns with her husband, chef Matt Shipp.

Obama did vow to “make BP pay” and accused the oil giant of “recklessness” in his first address to the nation from the Oval Office Tuesday night, eight weeks to the day after the catastrophic oil spill began destroying the Gulf Coast way of life. It followed a two-day trip to the Gulf Coast where he met with officials and residents about the oil gushing from the broken wellhead, millions of gallons a day.

Their lives turned upside down by the nation’s worst oil spill, Gulf Coast residents paused to watch the speech with a mix of fear and anger over both the crude spewing into the ocean and a response that seems almost comical at times.

Sipping a glass of wine at his home in Empire, La., Mitch Jurisich decided to watch Obama’s address after wavering on whether to even tune in. The third-generation oyster fisherman has been out of work since the Louisiana oyster beds were shut down two weeks ago.

Afterward, Jurisich said he fears a moratorium on offshore drilling would kill what’s left of the economy in coastal Louisiana. And the inaction Obama said he wouldn’t tolerate isn’t really the problem, he said.

“There’s a lot of action but it’s confusion and chaos, and that’s starting to overtake the efforts I see to stop this spill,” said Jurisich, 47.

But, Jurisich said, Obama fooled him.

“‘Cause he didn’t give the same old speech. I like what he said about putting aside the money. But however much it is it won’t be enough,” he said. “They should freeze all BP’s assets, but it still might not be enough.”

At Shaggy’s restaurant and bar on the docks in Pass Christian, Miss., heads immediately turned toward the five televisions when the president began speaking. Glasses stopped clinking, and food sat on plates as customers watched and listed intently — for about 10 minutes.

As the president’s address went on, interest waned and conversation returned to a loud chatter.

Keath Ladner said the speech gave him some hope, even though his seafood processing business has shut down since the April 20 rig explosion killed 11 people 50 miles off the Louisiana coast and triggered what Obama called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Ladner just prays things begin to change.

“Words are only words. Action means everything,” said the 48-year-old who owns Gulf Shores Sea Products in Lakeshore, Miss. “Right now, I believe we need a little bit more government oversight to make sure things are handled properly.”

John and Margaret Ehrenreich couldn’t depend any more on a clean Gulf Coast that will attract tourists to Pensacola Beach, Fla. They have a miniature golf course, a parasailing business, a go-cart track and personal watercraft rentals as part of their business, Bonifay Watersports.

The couple largely agreed with the Obama’s speech, but said they still weren’t encouraged about the future of their business. And they’re not relying on Obama or BP for that.

“We know that at the highest levels they understand our plight, but we are going to have to get through this on our own. It’s not up to him, it’s up to us to keep going,” John Ehrenreich said.

The couple has survived major hurricanes and economic slumps, but they don’t know how they will weather the oil spill.

“I’m not going to say we are going to get through, but we will take it one day at a time and do whatever we can,” said John Ehrenreich, 68 who immigrated to the U.S. from the former Yugoslavia at age 15 and built his beach business after discovering the town while serving in the Navy.

Back at Regina Shipp’s restaurant, the food is gourmet-quality yet affordable — the view over Perdido Bay, beautiful. Yet the oil spill has gutted the couple’s business so badly they’re worried about caring for their two young daughters if conditions don’t improve quickly. They’ve filed a $33,000 claim with BP, yet they’ve only gotten $5,000.

Shipp, 40, hopes Obama’s tough talk about BP making pay for the damage wasn’t just words, but she has her doubts.

“BP has killed our environment, killed our economy and destroyed our way of life, and they get to say who they’re going to pay?” she said.

Associated Press writers Holbrook Mohr in Empire, La.; Brian Skoloff in Pass Christian, Miss.; and Melissa Nelson in Pensacola, Fla., contributed to this story.

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