BP Ruined a Mississippi Way of Life

Eleven weeks into the BP oil catastrophe, millions of gallons of thick black crude continue to gush into the Gulf of Mexico.

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.

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.

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."

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

"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."

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.

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

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.

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.

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. ...

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. ...

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."

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.

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

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

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."

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.

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.

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...

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

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

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."

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

"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."

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

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.

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."

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.

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?"

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.

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'

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.

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

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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

"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.

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

"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.

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.

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."

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

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

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."

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