America moves on from Gulf oil spill; coast feels abandoned
For Gulf residents fighting for economic survival, a nation's short attention span is unsettling, especially with oil still washing ashore.
Sat, Oct 09, 2010 at 12:16 PM
OIL SPILL LEGACY: Chef Chris Sherrill, owner of Staycations Beach Weddings, stands outside the storefront he planned to open before the oil spill slowed business this summer, in Gulf Shores, Ala. (Photo: Michelle Rolls-Thomas/AP)
About 800 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, Dave Edmonds is struggling to remind people about the BP oil spill.
There aren't many magazine covers with photos of oil-drenched birds now that BP has capped its massive gusher at the bottom of the sea. People aren't looking online for information about the historic spill like they were a few weeks ago.
So Edmonds, who lives on the Delaware coast, has started a nonprofit organization to keep the disaster on people's minds with a website and social networking campaign.
"Awareness has dropped. People don't really care about the people who were affected. They don't care about the fish life," said Edmonds, founder of Taking Back the Gulf.
For Gulf residents fighting for economic survival, a nation's short attention span is deeply unsettling, especially with oil still washing ashore. Yet it's unclear whether Americans are turning their attention elsewhere, or whether it's just the media that have.
Either way, people like Chef Chris Sherrill feel abandoned.
"It's amazing how quickly the American public forgot that this was one of the worst manmade disasters in U.S. history," he said. His wedding catering and event business in Gulf Shores, Ala., is teetering because few brides are still coming to the beach for weddings.
The slight isn't necessarily intentional. Walking with his girlfriend in a park in Des Moines, Iowa, Michael Gauthier said he wonders about the oil's lingering impact on the environment, and he fears for Gulf residents.
"It's not in your face every day so you forget about it. Who doesn't have bills to pay and work to go to? Who has time to think about what's going on in Louisiana?" said Gauthier, 26.
What's going on is the continued arrival of oil washing ashore, although in lesser amounts than during the summer. Dire predictions of environmental Armageddon have yet to materialize, but there's also no consensus on how badly the ecosystem has suffered.
At first, no one could agree on how much oil was spilling into the Gulf; now there's disagreement over how much remains. A commission this week faulted Barack Obama's administration for multiple missteps, including an effort to block scientists from telling the public how bad the spill could be early on.
"If someone could say it will affect this, our shrimp are going to be poisoned for 10 years, people would think this is a bigger deal maybe," said Scott Peterson, 37, also of Des Moines.
Peterson's sentiment was echoed by Kathy Yoder, whose family works a farm in Washington, Maine. She said people may be dismissing the spill because the impacts don't seem as devastating as first predicted.
"What irritates me is people act like it's all gone because it's not floating on top of the water," she said. "I'm like, 'Hello, there's plenty of oil under the surface.'"
Recent research also raises the question of whether the spill is being overlooked outside the Gulf region, or if information on recent developments is just harder to come by. A Pew Research Center study found that only 1 percent of news coverage was dedicated to the spill last month, down from 22 percent during the height of the crisis.
However, a separate Pew survey found that 34 percent of the people responding to a poll in mid-September said they were still very interested in the spill — making it the top news item that week in terms of public interest. Participants were presented with news topics and asked how much they were following them.
But even if people say they're interested when asked directly, information from Google suggests that they're not searching as much for information about the spill online.
The term "Gulf oil spill" was a hot search on Google for weeks, peaking in mid-May as a sense of doom built around the fate of coastal towns, marshes and beaches. Soon, photos were all over the media of oiled marshlands and crude washing in with the surf on beaches.
Conditions on some parts of the coast improved in July, and Google searches had decreased dramatically by late that month, when BP finally capped the well and oil stopped flowing into the deep-blue waters off the coast of Louisiana.
Even more Web users lost interest through August despite the occasional blip, and people now enter in the Gulf oil spill search terms about as often as they did in April before the horrendous rig explosion and unstopped gusher grabbed the coast by the throat. Far more common today are searches for information about the economy, actress Lindsay Lohan or the University of Alabama's top-ranked football team.
One place where interest remains high is Cordova, Alaska. The northern fishing community of 2,200 was devastated after the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound in 1989, and Gulf residents have visited to learn from survivors of the Alaska spill.
"I think like all things media-related, when you see it often enough, it's pushed to the back of your mind," said Rochelle van den Broek, executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United. "But here, it's in our minds a little bit more than other places because it's a subject so close to people."
In Louisiana, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser became the face of the oil spill during the summer, meeting with Obama and conducting countless media interviews. The parish still sends out regular news releases with photos of fresh oil, almost begging someone to notice.
Nungesser said it's no accident that America has spill amnesia. He faults BP commercials for portraying the region as being healthier than it really is, for focusing more on successful aspects of the cleanup than the havoc the gusher created.
"What's frustrating to me is that they're obviously setting the stage for pulling out," Nungesser said.
BP has said it's in for the long haul, and Chef Sherrill said the company needs to be. He has creditors all over the country, and he regularly must explain to them that he can't pay his bills because the spill dried up business and there's simply no money.
"It should be a crime what is happening down here," Sherrill said.
(Associated Press writers Michael Crumb in Des Moines, Iowa; Rachel D'Oro in Anchorage, Alaska; and Clarke Canfield in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.)
Copyright 2010 AP News