They looked like the cast of Lost or contestants on Survivor. But they were students and teachers from the Memphis College of Art, who spend nine days every summer camping on Horn Island, a pristine, uninhabited barrier island off the coast of Mississippi that was made famous by artist Walter Anderson.
The usual discomforts include sunburn, bug bites, dehydration, hot sand, and daily thunderstorms, but that's all part of it. Anderson (1903-1965) used to row from the mainland to Horn Island in a small skiff and spend weeks alone, sketching and painting. He would lie still for hours on his belly on the dunes or in lagoons to get a better look at birds and marine life and once tied himself to a tree to "realize" the force of a hurricane.
The added anxiety this year, of course, was the British Petroleum oil leak less than 100 miles away. The MCA group, which returned to Memphis last Sunday, was encamped right in its projected spread path. There was a fear among members of the group that a program that started 26 years ago might be coming to an end.
"It's tragic," said James Carey, who has made the trip four times. "We don't know if we'll be able to come back next year or if it could potentially destroy the ecosystem."
Like the MCA outliers, everyone in Memphis who enjoys the Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Destin was wondering "how bad is it?" and "how bad will it get?" I decided to see for myself by driving to the coast of Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle for three days last week at the start of the high season. Horn Island was my first side trip.
At the small-craft harbor in Pascagoula, I met Rob Jacobson, a local insurance agent and boat owner who contracted with MCA to shuttle supplies to the island. We motored out of the harbor past a line of "vessels of opportunity" — boats of all sizes mobilized by BP to lay boom if needed. Bucking waves all the way, Jacobson's 17-foot Boston whaler made the trip across the sound in a little less than an hour. The main MCA camp was on the bay side of the island, which is about 14 miles long and as much as three-fourths of a mile wide. Small tents were scattered around the main camp and on the Gulf side. Students spend their time sketching, painting, writing, and creating some amazing art out of materials scavenged from the beach. Their work will be displayed in a show at the college in August.
"You find yourself in an element here that you will never get in any kind of studio," said MCA Horn Island program director Don DuMont, sporting several days' growth of beard and a red bandana. "We had a few students who dropped out because they were worried about the oil. And we were worried that the National Seashore officials might shut the island down. I said we would have 30 people out there on the ground who are visual people to begin with, and they liked that idea."
Horn Island was spared for the most part, at least through last week. Some tar balls and possible oil-rig wreckage were found by students and Coast Guard officers, but there were no reports of dead or injured birds or animals due to the oil gusher.
Mississippi governor Haley Barbour has gotten some flak for saying the Mississippi Gulf Coast was clear and open for business — and for blaming the media for hurting tourism. But at the time he said that, he was more right than wrong. This is no Katrina. The casinos were running full blast last weekend, the sparkling-white man-made beach at Gulfport and Biloxi was oil-free — and the Mississippi Sound was as brown as usual.
His relatively optimistic view had some contrarian support in the scientific community.
"Even if it takes until August to stop the leak, two or three years after that, most of the ecologically adverse effects will be over with," predicted Rob Ford, a retired marine biologist of 32 years who lives in Pascagoula. "Some of the longer-lived animals that might be impacted will take a few extra years to recover, but it's not permanent. It's nothing like a major volcanic eruption or a major hurricane like Katrina or Camille."
The shrimping season in Mississippi opened early last week so local fishermen could harvest something. The red snapper season, however, closed less than 24 hours after it opened in the majority of federal waters from Mississippi to Pensacola.
The "po boy" season was going strong at Bozo's Seafood Market and Deli in Pascagoula. Owner Keith Delcambre gets his shrimp from Texas and some areas of Louisiana that have not been closed, plus he has fresh shrimp that started coming in last week.
"This may be the end of the end of fresh seafood as we know it," he said. "There is already enough regulation and time lines and cutoff dates and endangered species. It used to be a problem getting rid of seafood. Now the problem is getting it. I hate to think someday somebody might come in here, and it will be imported shrimp from China and tuna in a can."
It's a short drive from Pascagoula to Mobile Bay, Alabama, but another hour south to the beaches at Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. That favorite vacation destination for Memphians absolutely could not catch a break last week — from the oil leak, the weather, or the media. The first tar balls washed ashore on Friday and were promptly pounced on by hordes of local and national media and Alabama governor Bob Riley — who was as pessimistic as Barbour was optimistic. I thought of the scene in Jaws where Chief Brody is reamed out by the head of the chamber of commerce for closing the beaches. There was no shark, but this was worse than a shark.
By mid-afternoon, "no swimming" signs were being posted at public beaches and a strong wind from the southwest carried a vague unpleasant smell. The water, though, was gin clear, and people were swimming anyway, until thunderstorms drove them indoors. From the 12th-floor condo where I was staying, I couldn't see the horizon because it was raining so hard. Then it rained some more. Then the television lost its signal and went black. I was glad I was not there with small children.
The next morning, the tide line was covered in seaweed mixed with a little oil and tar turds. With no oil on its own beaches, the Biloxi Sun Herald misleadingly described it Sunday as "the dark brown stain of beached oil" in a front-page story and picture. Whatever you called it, the mess stayed there for several hours until clean-up crews were deployed. Hired locally, they make $18 an hour, $25 an hour, or $30 an hour depending on whether they have one, two, or three days training. They were taking no chances. They wore boots and gloves and worked slowly in teams of five or six, switching places in the shade of a tent with another team every 30 minutes. Several swimmers and a man and a little boy playing with plastic sand pails did their best to ignore them and the red flags.
The pier at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores was closed to fishing. A lone sightseer, Joe Thompson of nearby Foley, was taking pictures of the sunrise.
"It's pitiful," he said. "Throughout the last six weeks down here, I've just about broken down and cried several times. It's just too massive."
The unfolding disaster has a delayed fuse. Motels on the Alabama beach were getting $189 a night last weekend, or $149 for a room across the road, if you could find a vacancy. There was no shortage of seafood. Steamer, a popular Gulf Shores restaurant, put cards on the tables promising that "the current crisis is not going to affect the quality of food and service we provide. We currently have a surplus of seafood and, in addition, we have numerous seafood suppliers and markets." At Lartigue's Seafood Market in Orange Beach, I bought two pounds of head-on "royal reds" shrimp and a pint of gumbo for $30 to take home on ice. You never know.
The coastline of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle is a jumble of jurisdictions. There are national parks, state parks, local parks, and private beaches. Near the eastern end of the barrier island, you leave Orange Beach, Alabama, and enter Perdido Key, Florida. From there you are only a mile or so of open water from the next barrier island and Pensacola Beach.
The response to the oil and the restrictions imposed often varied from one place to the next one a half-mile down the road.
Nobody does beaches like Florida, and Pensacola Beach is as carefully groomed and tended as the White House lawn. From here to Panama City, the sand is whiter and the water bluer than anywhere in America. The oil leak took on another dimension when it moved from the marshes of Louisiana to the white beaches of the Sunshine State.
The Pensacola News Journal headline on Saturday said, "Oil Is Here." That set off a media frenzy. The beach parking lot was crowded with television satellite trucks, camera crews, Florida governor Charlie Crist, officials from various agencies, and singer Jimmy Buffett, who is opening a hotel and urged people "not to take a sky-is-falling attitude."
An entrepreneur named Will Anderson, from Earth Guard Technologies in Bogart, Georgia, brought a little plastic wading pool to the beach to demonstrate how dry-ice pellets could make oil on the water hard as a rock in a few minutes.
The beach east of the pier was spotless, and plenty of people were swimming in the blue-green water. Unlike Gulf Shores, Pensacola Beach was not under a "no swimming" advisory. Two clean-up workers were talking on cell phones as a group of surfers waxed down their boards. Beachcombers were looking for tar balls the way they used to look for shells.
Behind Pensacola Beach is Pensacola Bay. The second line of defense is the now iconic orange boom. With the wind blowing 20 miles an hour last weekend, waves sloshed over the booms next to Highway 98 where the causeway to the beach begins. Pensacola began putting out booms to protect its marshes six weeks ago, shortly after the oil leak started.
The good news is they have not been needed so far. The bad news is they do not appear likely to do much good if an oil slick enters the bay.