Businesses, Tourism Hit Hard By Gulf Oil Mess

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Just last week, Al Sunseri's 134-year-old, New Orleans-based family oyster business had to stop oyster production. Frank Corder, councilman for Pascagoula, Miss., says hotel occupancy in his town is down 50 percent and oil has yet to reach their beaches. While President Obama continues to tour the gulf region, locals are worrying about their livelihoods and businesses. Host Michel Martin speaks with Sunseri Corder about what they need from the government and from BP to help keep them going.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, how did he wind up on the November ballot? We'll ask the chair of South Carolina's Democratic Party about the strange saga of U.S. Senate candidate Alvin Greene.

But first, President Obama will us his Oval Office address tonight to address the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Yesterday, he spent time in Mississippi and Alabama before heading to Florida to check out oil spill damage and the efforts to keep the oil away. The president is said to meet with BP executives tomorrow to talk about stopping the leak and about compensation, including an escrow account for those affected by the spill.

We want to begin the program with conversations with two such people who are directly affected by this catastrophe. Joining us from Pascagoula, Mississippi is city councilman Frank Corder. He says occupancy rates for coastal hotels is down some 50 percent.

Also with us from New Orleans is Al Sunseri. Sunseri's family has owned P&J Oysters for 134 years. Just last week, he had to stop the oyster shucking. I welcome you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. FRANK CORDER (City Councilman, Pascagoula, Mississippi): Thanks for having me.

Mr. AL SUNSERI (President, Co-owner, P&J Oysters): Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, councilman, let me start with you. Pascagoula is right on the water in Mississippi. When you look out to the beaches, have you been out to the beaches? What do you see?

Mr. CORDER: Right now it's clear. It's a great day to be on the water here in Mississippi, a great day for fishing and for recreational boating. Although here in Pascagoula, you know, you're having a bunch of vessels of opportunity that have been hired by BP, utilizing our dock space and our boat launches to go out and try to combat this oil where it's at.

MARTIN: Is there any oil on the water there?

Mr. CORDER: Not in the Mississippi Sounds currently. The closest oil we've had currently, it's about 25 to 30 miles away and also on our barriers islands, on Petit Bois Island and Horn Island.

MARTIN: Now, your governor Haley Barbour was recently critical of the media coverage of the oil spill, saying that the coverage has been worse than the spill. I just want to play a short clip from what he said on "Face the Nation" this Sunday. Here it is.

(Soundbite of show, "Face the Nation")

Governor HALEY BARBOUR (Democrat, Mississippi): We have lost the first third of the tourist season. And as Admiral Allen said, there are a lot of people on the coast that make most of their living in three months. And they have been clobbered because of the misperception that our whole coast is knee deep in oil.

MARTIN: Councilman, is that true where you are that, really, people could come, but they're not coming because they're afraid of what isn't there?

Mr. CORDER: I believe that's the case for the most part, yes. We've got tons of opportunities down here on the Gulf Coast to enjoy and to boat and to have recreational fishing, for tourism all along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

And at this point in this tourism season, in the summer season, we are seeing quite a bit of cancellations from bookings from groups, from individuals and families in large part because of the misperception given by the national media that we have, you know, only moose-type oil coming onto our shores and that's just not the case right now.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, we're going to hear more about that in a minute. But I want to go to Al Sunseri for a minute in New Orleans. And as I understand it, your business has pretty much come to a halt. Is that right?

Mr. SUNSERI: Yes, Michel. We have empty coolers today for the first time over this 57-day span.

MARTIN: And why is that? Is it that the traditional oyster areas, the oyster fishing areas are not operable or is it that people aren't buying because they're afraid to eat what's there?

Mr. SUNSERI: No, everyone's still eating oysters. And in fact, they're eating quite a bit of them because they believe that it's might be an end of something that they've been accustomed to have anytime they want. The issue is more that there are the main growing areas of the state of Louisiana are closed.

And Texas is still open. But there's only a handful of oysters that come from Texas, and Mississippi doesn't have a private oyster season. Their public season closed in May. And Alabama's closed and Florida does have some. But Louisiana is the largest producer of oysters in the United States. And during this time of the year about 50 plus percent of the oysters consumed come from here.

MARTIN: So, what has that meant for business? Have you had to lay people off? What's going on?

Mr. SUNSERI: Well, Thursday was the last day that we actually shucked oysters and it's a little depressing walking into the shop for the last few days having had laid off people that I have grown up with. People that I've known for the last 30 years. I was 21 years old when I started in the business. And I'm 52 now. I had to tell them, you know, that was it.

MARTIN: That was it for what? For the rest of the year? For the rest of the season? For, what do you mean?

Mr. SUNSERI: Well, I truly believe, having been in this business as long as I have, to know that the freshwater is inundating it from the north, from the diversions, manmade diversions from the river. And we have oil from the south that's beginning to enter the marshes and have been found over some of the oyster reefs. And these are the old historic reefs that we have been able to supply our customers for over 134 years.

MARTIN: So you just don't know whether you'll ever see oysters from there again.

Mr. SUNSERI: I mean, I do think that oysters will come back. I just don't know the timeframe. There'll be time that's going to have to clean up the area and I think that the only way is through natural flushing. The unknown is that we don't know if the spawn, the larvae will be able to set if there will be reefs there or there'll be oil or what the disbursements will do to the water quality to allow for oysters to actually set.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Ahead of President Obama's address to the nation tonight on the Gulf oil spill, we're talking with two people directly affected by this spill, Al Sunseri, who was just speaking as co-owner of P&J Oysters in New Orleans. As you just heard him say, he essentially shut down the business last Thursday for the first time in years and laid people off. We're also speaking with Frank Corder, who is city councilman in the city of Pascagaula, Mississippi.

So, councilman, this is an interesting question about how compensation can happen after a disaster like this. The president is said to meet BP executives tomorrow. Compensation is one of the things he's going to be talking about and how that should be addressed. It sounds to me like you're kind of a what's the word I'm looking for collateral damage in a way? I mean, you're saying that the areas that drive the economy in your area are not directly affected, but there's a spillover effect. How do you think that should be addressed?

Mr. CORDER: When it comes to the claims process that the president is speaking of tonight, I've seen many, many here along this Gulf Coast and in Mississippi and here in Jackson County, here in Pascagaula, who have applied for claims and they have not been denied any help at this point. The process, however, is kind of cumbersome. It is kind of slow. And there needs to be some thought given to how to, on an ongoing basis, allow for those who are impacted the most to get the most help.

MARTIN: But you're saying that technically, in your area, you really shouldn't need it because you're actually saying it's functional there, that people actually could come and vacation there. Is that true or...

Mr. CORDER: Yeah, but I think right now that you're correct - it is more of a collateral damage. The misperception that we're losing tourists over is because of the fact that people aren't coming. So our impact is because of the misrepresentation of the media mostly because of the situation with the oil spill.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know what you mean by misrepresentation. I'm just not clear I mean, it's a time honored, you know, habit of political leaders, forgive me, to blame the media for, you know, whatever goes wrong.

Mr. CORDER: Sure.

MARTIN: So, you know, you'll forgive me if I have a little skepticism about that. But what exactly are you saying? Are you saying that there's not enough specificity about the affected areas or what? Or is that it? Or...

Mr. CORDER: It's more of a factual-based reporting. I do a local radio show here locally. And from what I'm seeing in the national media, they are doing it in one fell swoop, like the whole entire Gulf Coast is unfortunately like the situation over in Al's area, where they've had more of an impact.

MARTIN: And Al, what about you? I mean, what about you? I mean, it sounds to be that you have had direct effects on our business because of the spill, because you can't get the product you're used to selling even though there's a demand for it. And there's been a real consequence. How do you think that should be handled? Have you put in a claim yet? And do you plan to? And how will you proceed here?

Mr. SUNSERI: I did put in a claim. I do plan to meet with officials from British Petroleum today, actually. I don't know where it's going to go. We'll find out. I'm more concerned about what the future is going to be. Short term is one thing. But, you know, I have a young son who began working with me a few years ago, gave up his college career to take on the family business. And he said to me the other day, you know, dad, what am I going to be able to do?

Should I try to collect unemployment and get food stamps like the oyster shuckers are applying for right now? Because the BP officials were in last Thursday to meet with them to try to prepare them for their new life following what they have done for the last 25, 30 years.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. And I'm sorry for that. The president, when he spoke Monday, spoke with optimism saying that things are going to return to normal along the Gulf Coast. And he actually said: I'm confident we'll be able to leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before. What about you, Al? Are you?

Mr. SUNSERI: I do believe that we will be okay. It's just how long? New Orleans is open for business and the food here is great. The entertainment here is great and I do want people to know that, just like what Councilman Corder said, I'd put my feet in the beach. I'd go swimming in the Gulf, in Mississippi and Alabama and Florida. I actually was there this past weekend and enjoyed some time on the beach.

But as far as it being normal in short order, I don't think that's going to be the case. And I hate to say that but, you know, having seen what's happened and occurred here within south Louisiana, I just don't see it being a short-term situation.

MARTIN: Al Sunseri is the co-owner of P&J Oysters, that's an oyster distributor in New Orleans. In Pascagoula, Mississippi, city councilman Frank Corder was with us. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking with us and good luck to you both.

Mr. CORDER: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. SUNSERI: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Once again, we'd like to hear from you. If you are in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama or Florida, we'd like to hear if you've been affected by the oil spill and how. Call us or post your story on our blog page, maybe a picture too if you have one. And we'd like to include you in a segment later this week. To tell us more, call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Once again, 202-842-3522. Or you can go to our website. Just go to npr.org. Click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

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