Mattress Mack's $1 million March Madness bet still alive in Louisiana

Florida frets about tourism as big cleanup meets tiny oil gobs

Carlene Peterson
A BP contract woker walks the shoreline looking for signs of oil, tar balls and other debris along the Gulf Coast as beach goers enjoy the sun and water in Pensacola Beach, Fla., Wednesday, June 9, 2010.

Washing off sticky gobs of oil might be new to some folks. But Bobby Skinner has been picking the pesky black muck off his skin for decades – his whole life in fact.

Skinner, a New Orleans native and musician, was trying to beat the oil to Pensacola Beach on Wednesday, June 9. He almost made it.

But while sample-size balls of oil had already arrived on shore, the white beaches were about as pristine as Skinner remembered them. He’s been vacationing at Pensacola Beach since he was 5, and as long as Skinner has been a beachgoer, oil has been dragged up from the bottom of the ocean.

“There have been blobs washing up all my life,” he said. “That’s part of the hazard of living along the Gulf.”

His suggestion is basically the same as his mother’s was when he was a child.

“If we ended up with oil on our feet - and everyone had to check their feet before they got in the car - we just cleaned it up,” he said.

The only real difference now, Skinner said, is the volume.

Oil began spewing into the gulf after an explosion April 20 on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, about 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana. More than 100 workers were evacuated, and 11 were killed.

Within a week of the explosion, the Coast Guard was reporting about 8,000 barrels of oil were being released into the Gulf each day. In early May, BP officials estimated that figure to be 50,000 barrels a day.

Efforts to contain the spill saw little success. An attempt to use a long pipe to stem the flow failed mid-May. Other attempts to use undersea robots and a containment dome also were ineffective. On June 4, BP officials announced they were containing about 10,000 barrels a day.

As the fight to contain the oil persists, locals in Pensacola are hoping the situation stays tame.

Beth DuBois, a Pensacola resident of nine years, has noticed small blotches of oil on the beach. But it’s not the oil she’s worried will scare off the tourists - she’s more concerned about the people hired to clean it up.

“Just the sight of workers is daunting enough,” she said.

For DuBois, the neon green outfits were more distracting, and more noticeable, than the oil balls.

DuBois, lounging on the beach with her friend and lifelong Pensacola resident Vickie Hutchins, was almost within earshot of a group picking oil pebbles from the sand.

For Pensacola, at least for now, there may be a silver lining in the slick. As beaches farther west fill up with gobs of oil, tourists could flock east.

Cindy Haehnel, a St. Louis resident, had planned on staying a week on the Gulf Shore. Confronted with balls of oil the size of basketballs, she packed up her family and headed to Pensacola.

“It’s disgusting to wake up and see a tar ball like that,” she said.

After watching her children, ages 13, 18 and 19, jump over the black gobs just to make it to the ocean, Haehnel said staying on the Gulf Shore wasn’t worth it.

While the oil spill might change vacation plans for some visitors, Skinner said it could change the way of life for people who call the Gulf home. He’s anxious for the government to hold the companies and the agencies that oversee them accountable, but first and foremost, he wants to hear a plan to stop the spill.

One that actually works.

“Long-term effect? Who knows,” he said. “They’re putting Band-aids and bubble gum to repair this thing.”

Editor and reporter Carlene Peterson is covering the Gulf oil spill for GateHouse News Service. She can be reached at