People along the Gulf Coast have spent weeks living with uncertainty, wondering where and when a huge slick of oil might come ashore, ruining their beaches — and their livelihoods.
The anxiety is so acute that some are seeing and smelling oil where there is none. And even though the dead turtles and jellyfish washing ashore along the Gulf of Mexico are clean, and scientists have yet to determine what killed them, many are just sure the flow of crude unleashed by the explosion at BP's Deepwater Horizon is the culprit.
Calm seas Tuesday helped cleanup crews working to fight the oil gushing from the well a mile below the surface, allowing them to put out more containment equipment and repair some booms damaged in rough weather over the weekend. They also hoped to again try to burn some of the oil on the water's surface, possibly Wednesday.
The Marine Spill Response Corp. had five, 210-foot vessels designed for oil skimming operating offshore Tuesday. Three more were at sea preparing to lower their equipment so they could suck up oil as well.
A Coast Guard official said forecasts showed the oil wasn't expected to come ashore until at least Thursday.
"It's a gift of a little bit of time. I'm not resting," U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said.
Near Port Fourchon, southwest of New Orleans, workers for contractor Wild Well Control were busy welding and painting a massive containment device. BP spokesman John Curry said it would be deployed on the seabed by Thursday.
That wasn't much comfort to the hotel owners, fishing boat captains and others who rely on the ocean to make a living.
"The waiting is the hardest part. The not knowing," said Dodie Vegas, 44, who runs the Bridge Side Cabins complex in Grand Isle, a resort and recreational fishing community that's just about as far south in Louisiana as you can go. So far, two fishing rodeos have been canceled, and 10 guests have canceled their rooms.
The Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and sending hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil a day gushing into the Gulf.
BP executives told members of a congressional committee that in a worst-case scenario, up to 2.5 million gallons a day could spill, though it would be more like 1.7 million gallons.
While a rainbow sheen of oil has reached land in parts of Louisiana, the gooey rafts of coagulated crude have yet to come ashore in most places.
Officials couldn't confirm reports that some of it reached the delicate Chandeleur Islands off the coast of Louisiana on Tuesday. The Associated Press reported oil had come ashore at the mouth of the Mississippi last week.
While officials worked on cleanup, the long wait took its toll — on nerves and wallets.
"It's aggravating, to a point," said Frank Besson, 61, owner of Nez Coupe Souvenir & Tackle. "You got people canceling out, thinking we've got oil on the beaches, and it's not even at the mouth of the Mississippi."
Over the weekend, residents on Florida's Navarre Beach thought they saw an oily sheen in the surf. When a dead bird washed up, that only reinforced their fears.
Reporters, lifeguards and the Navarre Fire Department descended on the beach. Community officials eventually declared what washed ashore was just "a natural occurrence."
The Environmental Protection Agency stepped up air quality monitoring on the Gulf Coast after people in New Orleans and elsewhere reported a strong odor of petroleum. A throng standing on the beach in Gulfport, Miss., Saturday were convinced they could smell the slick — until someone pointed out a big diesel truck idling just 50 feet away.
When the truck left, so did the smell.
Dr. Timothy F. Jones, deputy state epidemiologist with the Tennessee Department of Health, witnessed a similar phenomenon in his own state.
In 1998, Jones investigated a case in which reports of a funny smell at a high school blossomed into a wave of nausea, dizziness, headaches and drowsiness that sent 170 people to area hospitals, shut down the school for more than two weeks and eventually cost nearly $100,000 in emergency medical care. Officials never were able to identify a physical source, viral or chemical, leading to the conclusion that the cause was most likely psychological.
"They're often associated with lots of media and lots of attention," Jones said of these events. "They often occur in populations under stress."
That certainly describes the current spill and the perennially beleaguered communities along the Gulf Coast.
Fishermen have complained bitterly about the federal decision to close a large swath of the Gulf to commercial and sport fishing, saying it was an overreaction. Some even vowed to keep catching fish until someone arrested them.
But U.S. Sen. David Vitter said it was necessary to reassure the American public that the seafood on restaurant menus and store shelves is safe.
"We don't want hysteria to take over and hysteria to hurt the industry even more than the oil is," said Vitter, R-La.
Daryl Carpenter, president of the Louisiana Charter Boat Association, is struggling to get people to understand that three-quarters of the Gulf is still clean and open to fishing.
In Gulf Shores, Ala., the real estate firm Brett/Robinson Vacations, sent a note to those renting vacation properties that they would not be penalized for any spill-related cancellations, but urged them not to jump the gun.
"There are many questions and many `what ifs' regarding this event," the message read. "Because changes come about hourly and 30 days is a long way away, we are asking you to wait before canceling your vacation, especially those of you who are scheduled to arrive more than 30 days from today."
The missive concluded with the words: "Thank you for staying with us and enjoying our beautiful Beaches."
There are legitimate concerns, experts say. A second bird found in the slick, a brown pelican, is recovering at a bird rescue center in Louisiana. National Wildlife Federation president and CEO Larry Schweiger says there's no way to know how many birds have been oiled because the slick is so big and so far offshore.
A decade ago when Jan Grant and her husband bought their little piece of paradise on St. George Island, Fla., bound by Apalachicola Bay on one side and the Gulf on the other, they never worried that the white sand 200 yards in front of the hotel could be covered in oil. Their St. George Inn is booked full the next two weekends, and Grant is taking reservations into the summer, but travelers are already calling about the spill.
"You mentally want to push it back to the west, and then you feel guilty for doing so," Jan Grant said.
"All we're doing is holding our collective breath," echoed Stella Banta, who was taking similar calls at Coombs Inn in Apalachicola's brick-lined historic district.
Idling his 28-foot charter boat in the lee of Louisiana's pristine Chandeleur Islands, Bob Kenney looked over the gunwales to see dozens of dead baby jellyfish floating along the hull. Off in the distance, the collections of thick, reddish-brown goo looked for all the world like little islands — except that they were moving.
"There's no sense in telling me the impact until you get the oil shut off," said the 41-year-old boat captain, who has already lost a half-dozen charters from people worried about fishing in the tainted Gulf.
Amid all the speculation surrounding the spill, the one thing that seemed certain was that life would never be the same.
"You know change is a-comin' after this, bro," he said, shaking his head ruefully. "You can't keep doing this kind of stuff to Mother Ocean."
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