According to one native ship captain who grew up “on the water” and whose family harkens back several generations to the 1930s, the situation has gone from a disaster to an apocalypse.

“We thought the place was coming back,” said Captain Louis Skrmetta of Gulfport, Mississippi, “that we were recovering from Katrina, finally, after five years, feeling really optimistic, and upbeat, then this thing hits on April 20th, and let me tell you, it was devastating.

“The anxiety level of people who live down here, I don't know how to describe it. It's like getting rid of a cancer and then having it show up again. Only now this time I think it is deadly.” 

Captain Skrmetta is chief executive of Ship Island Excursions in Gulfport. For three generations, starting in 1933, his family has run concessions and ferried tourists and VIP’s out to the lush barrier islands off the coast.
 
“I really feel fear in my heart that this is going to change our way of life forever - I don't think it will ever be the same,” he said. “It has destroyed our sea food industry and that is the backbone of our tourism industry and our general quality of life in this region.”

For the first time, Skrmetta feels like leaving the region, maybe going back to the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia where his family and many of families who live in and around Gulfport port migrated from around the turn of the last century, ending up in the Biloxi area.

The ship captain said his grandfather, a Croatian immigrant, started running the boat to the island in 1933. Other immigrants from the same area of the Dalmatian Coast worked in the oyster industry.

Fond Memories

Skrmetta says he has fond memories of sitting on his grandfather’s lap as they headed for Ship Island, one of the lush barrier islands off Gulfport for an over-nighter. 

“We had a snack bar concession operation on the island near the old fort,” Skrmetta recalls, “which was food service, and beverages and beer and whiskey, and gambling, believe it or not, we had gambling out there, the coast was wide open.

“I mean this was a New Orleans resort town. And you always had gambling here, don't let anybody tell you it wasn't around. And every little shop, every little store sold whiskey, you know packaged liquor even when Mississippi was dry. …

 “And I remember, my aunts, and my father who was one of the boat captains that worked for my grandfather had five sisters, older sisters. And the sisters all worked on the island. …

“The water on the island is a beautiful green, clear water. It's the first clear, green water that you get, that you reach east of the Mississippi River. The Barrier Islands are eleven miles off hore, so the water is quite beautiful.  And full of fish, fish everywhere, used to be edible fish, now non-edible.” 

Several national environmental and health groups have identified Bon Secure National Wildlife Refuge, the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi, and the Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge as "special places at risk in the Gulf” due to the BP oil catastrophe.

There is now a federal ban on all commercial fishing from the Mississippi Sound all the way around to Pensacola, Florida. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the fishing ban brings to more than 81,000 square miles of federal waters closed to fishing, roughly one-third of the Gulf.

As of Thursday, oil sludge also was starting to flow deep inland into eastern Louisiana, and into Lake Pontchatrain and the wetlands of southeastern Louisiana, at the back door to New Orleans.
 
Oil Everywhere

On June 27, the oil from BP’s uncontrollable deep-sea gusher reached the barrier islands and the white sandy beaches of Gulfport, Mississippi.

“It was like my worst nightmare appearing,” said the Skrmetta. “It was surreal, really. I mean, we've been lucky here…we were the last coast line to get hit. … Of course, I knew it was coming. It was inevitable. [But] we had a southwest wind blowing for 70 plus days, and then that Hurricane Alex came through last week and changed the wind to the southeast -- and boom, oil all over.”

Captain Skrmetta decided to fire up his boat and take a look for himself. He headed to West Ship Island -- and the daytime nightmare only got worse by the hour. 

“I got a call Thursday morning last week from chief of maintenance to tell me that there was oil all around the life guarded swim area,” said Skrmetta.

“All of our beach chairs/umbrellas had oil, spots of oil on the ground.  It wasn't a blanket of oil it was just those spots of oil, like on the back of a leopard, you know. All over, a white sand beach, the natural beautiful beach on the island, that's so famous out there. 

“So we decided to run out there, my wife, my son, a couple of crew members, my brother…First thing we saw when we tied up at the dock on the north side of the island was these pieces of taffy like material, as big as your fist and bigger floating in the water, near the waters edge.  And the fish were swimming around it…

“I looked down to the east about fifty yards, and I could see a pitiful sight: it was a pelican that was solid black, just standing there and all you could see was his white eyes, you know, looking down with his beak down on his breast, just standing there. Well, I mean, I was shocked.”

Skrmetta then took the half-mile walk across to the other side of the island and realized the full extent of the damage.

“We got over there and we saw the oil everywhere. I was just disgusted about it and realized what was happening.  There were sea gulls and some other wildlife, other birds that had been oiled over and were just barely alive,” he said.

Slow Response

Skrmetta said they immediately called BP’s 800 number for wildlife rescue, and a woman said “Yeah, we'll be right on it.”

“A few minutes later,” said Skrmetta, the anger rising in his voice, “the park rangers arrived and they told us the same thing. They asked about the bird and called it in too: But you know what happened? It took two days for BP's wildlife people to finally get out there to rescue those animals.

“They were terribly unprepared, and I just, can't tell you how many times I've seen this happen down here over the past 70-plus days.”

Skrmetta has no faith in the current clean-up and rescue operations in Mississippi. He labeled them as merely “symbolic” in nature, adding:.

“The clean up-effort is out of an operation in Mobile, Alabama, they call it the Unified Command. And they bring people in from all over the country and it's like … a war room.

“And you have all these ‘experts’, and they have all these soldiers they are giving orders to. But nothing is getting done, I mean, it is crazy. They are telling you that we've got 20,000 boats…but don't tell you that they've hired every little boat with an outboard motor that's riding around in circles in Mississippi Sound doing nothing….like I said, it's a symbolic thing.”

“You know if it wasn't for us taking day trips out to the islands nobody would have done anything for these birds,” said Skrmetta. “You have to wonder now what is happening on the other barrier islands where you don't have access to them. 

“How many birds are sitting there dying and, only because of the public outcry they took care of the birds on Ship Island. What about Cat Island?  What about the islands in Louisiana?” 

The seasoned ship captain warned that the worst may be yet to come, since BP’s underwater volcano could continue to erupt – or at least have its lava-like oil roll ashore – for the foreseeable future.

“We're going to have this huge deposit of oil in the water column for years,” Skrmetta said. “A huge vortex of oil circling around that deep water, fifty miles off the Mississippi coast for years. And every time you have a hurricane or a tropical storm or any kind of weather event, it's going to whisk that stuff up with the tides and the currents and bring it right to us. Or if it doesn't come to us it's going to go to Florida and God knows if they don't stop it.”

‘Swim at Your Own Risk’

One of the most troubling aspects to Skrmetta is the oil’s impact on people’s health and well-being. There are now hundreds of reports of workers and residents across the gulf, becoming ill with outbreaks of respiratory disease and major skin-rashes, from contact with the oily sludge that has scarred and soiled beaches across the Gulf Coast.

In Mississippi, local and state health officials apparently decided to copy Florida’s swim-at-your-own-risk policy for the July Fourth holiday.

But Skrmetta expressed grave concern about people swimming in the bays, and questions the competence of Mississippi’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), to be the final arbiter of whether it’s safe to swim in waters where oil sheens, oil balls and sludge have been floating.

“I haven’t seen anybody testing water on the national seashore. I haven’t seen anybody testing water on the national sea shore. And I go out there everyday,” said Skrmetta. 

“I know they are not testing on the islands and very, very little on the front beach. No one should be telling the people that the water is non-toxic, [that] it’s safe you can swim in it.”

That the DEQ in Mississippi  is run by  a political appointee and close associate of Gov. Haley Barbour, does not bolster Skrmetta’s hope that the people of Mississippi will be protected from BP’s floating toxins.

He echoed what many in Mississippi are now saying about their current governor, that he has shown more concern and sensitivity for Big Oil and BP than the people he was elected to represent.

“He’s pro-oil. And every time you turn around he’s trying, he’s an apologist for BP. That’s what we’re dealing with. Can you imagine him making a statement like ‘to stop drilling for oil would be a worse tragedy than the current BP disaster?’ Can you imagine this is our leadership down here?

“If one of his cronies wants a development plan in Mississippi, they get it done; Big Haley’s gonna get it done for them.”

Incalculable Damage

But Skrmetta said the damage to the tourism and related industries is incalculable.

“When our passengers ask us [about swimming], when they go to the island, we have a little statement that they can read before they board the boat letting them know about the oil. [It’s] prepared by the National Park Service.

“What we tell them: ‘If I were you, I would not swim in the water.’ That’s what we tell our people. And I can tell you I know not to get in this water; I would not do it. The people that are telling you to get in the water are wrong.”

Skrmetta added that jobs unrelated to the oil clean-up are scarce.

“The anxiety level down here is incredible,” he said, noting that he has two sons, including who’s just finished college and can’t find a job.

“It is very difficult right now to find any employment down here, unless you work for BP. And who knows how long that’s going to last, and its not very healthy either; people picking up this oil, and shoveling this oil,” Skrmetta said. “My God, I wouldn’t do it. People are being exposed [to dangerous toxins] all the time.”

Mississippi was the last of the Gulf states to have its shoreline damaged by BP’s oil. Now, Mississippi residents who live near or on the coast – and who depend on the great riches of the sea and the beautiful beaches – wonder if they and their traditional lifestyles will survive the crisis.

Many, like Captain Skrmetta, are weighing their options, including leaving for good.

“I think about it now,” he said, “if we don't have seafood here, what is our future ? Quite frankly, for the first time, I really feel like leaving. I thought we really had something special here and it's just been destroyed.” 

Dennis Bernstein based this report in part on interviews done for "Flashpoints" on the Pacifica radio network. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net. You can get in touch with the author at dbernstein@igc.org.

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