Gulf Coast

A blue heron stands in the water at Lake Shelby in Gulf Shores, Ala. The oil spill occurred just before the peak tourist season, hampering the region's usually bustling summer scene. (Dave Martin / Associated Press)

"Hey, got any extra Jimmy Buffett tickets?"

The two 50ish retirees, both wearing sunglasses and hoop earrings, laughed as they tried to get passersby to stop and chat awhile, a Southerner's favorite pastime on sleepy summer days. And on this overcast afternoon, with a cooling breeze from the Gulf of Mexico, there was plenty to talk about.

"It's usually bumper-to-bumper traffic this time of year," said Bunny Munoz, a lifelong resident of the Alabama coast.

Her friend Rita Kruger motioned me to join them on a weather-worn bench on the boardwalk. "Normally, we wouldn't be able to find a seat here," she said. Behind them were two red flags, one atop the other, which means it's illegal in Gulf Shores to go into the water on this late June day. A smattering of bathers ignored the warning, and a couple of them were scrubbing the soles of their feet at an outdoor faucet.

Sand near the Gulf Shores boardwalk was, as it usually is, white, soft and so porous that it was hard to walk on. But midway to the Gulf, where the lapping surf had turned the sand tan and made it firm underfoot, there was brown oil, looking as though it had been drizzled and sprayed by an abstract painter. When a gust of wind blew our way, the smell was pungent: wet sand mingled with dirty petroleum. Tar balls looked like dog droppings but were sticky on bare feet and sandals.

Nibblin' on sponge cake,

Watchin' the sun bake,

All of those tourists covered with oil....

This year, Buffett's "Margaritaville" lyrics have taken on a whole new meaning.

Stirring emotions

"When they clean the beach up, it's just beautiful again," Munoz said. "There's white sand the next morning."

Do they clean it up much?

"All the time," Kruger said.

No one on the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, from Louisiana's New Orleans and Grand Isle, to Mississippi's Gulfport and Biloxi, to Alabama's Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, to the Florida Panhandle's Perdido Key, Pensacola Beach and on to Destin and Panama City, is even pretending things are good now.

Certainly not since the last days of June, when the oil gushing from the ruined Deepwater Horizon rig 41 miles off Louisiana reached the Mississippi, Alabama and Florida Panhandle beaches just days before the peak of the summer season.

The situation changes almost by the minute, including some hopeful news late last week about capping the well. But with damage not likely to disappear any time soon, people I talked to on my visit at the cusp of high season were angry about the spill and anxious about their livelihoods, especially in light of a tourism forecast that shows room occupancy about half of what it was last year.

Yet residents here, like those across the Gulf Coast, have rebounded in the past from wicked hurricanes and storms. Disasters bring them together. Giving up is not in their makeup.

Singer-songwriter Buffett is one of them. He was born in Mobile, Ala., about an hour northwest of here, and later lived in the artsy town of Fairhope, facing Mobile Bay about 45 minutes northwest of Gulf Shores.

Last Sunday, Buffett gave a free concert on the beach at Gulf Shores; the 35,000 free tickets — 12,500 to house and condo rental agencies as booking lures — were snatched up in 10 minutes.