Pot Luck

Tourists, Tar Balls and Tort: Galveston and Deepwater Horizon

Before his visit to Texas President Obama hosted a cookout for family and friends on the South Lawn. On the menu: andouille sausage, crawfish and shrimp, all fresh from the Gulf Coast. He told press in a statement, "Americans can confidently and safely enjoy Gulf seafood once again."

Galveston area businesses have a slightly different message to convey: Our Gulf Coast seafood has always been safe. And it's as delicious as ever.

In fact, many local residents dismiss the legitimacy of the tar balls that washed ashore in early July as media frenzy or overzealous legal tactics. In his July 6 Hairballs post, Richard Connelly speculated that "...[the tar] probably traveled here by boat and not ocean currents, meaning more ain't coming soon," (a sentiment I heard echoed several times). One local businessman, who wished to remain anonymous, even theorized that the oil arrived on the Galveston coastline via "attorney suitcase."

Having spent a fair amount of time on Sea Isle as a kid I remember Boogie boards and rafts that would return from the surf with mysterious rust-colored splotches, performing routine "tar checks," and the containers of turpentine and baby oil that were permanent fixtures at the bottom of the stairs. This is oil country, ya'll. Tar happens.

Regardless of water quality, the restaurant industry did not escape unscathed. The fishing industries in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana all took a massive hit and prices soared.

Danny Hart of the Galveston Restaurant Group owns five upscale eateries on the island (Gumbo Bar, Saltwater Grille, Sky Bar Steak & Sushi, Mario's Seawall Italian Restaurant, and Papa's Pizza), together with Johnny and Joey Smecca. "There has been a definite increase in our costs for shrimp, oysters, and crab," Hart says.

Hart is quick to point out that he has seen the price of shrimp drop recently. "But not oysters. We get almost everything locally, but the best oysters came from Mississippi. Unfortunately the beds were damaged; they were flushed out with fresh water, meaning [costs] could be up for a while - but who knows? Time will tell."

If anyone should be concerned with shrimp prices, it's Mike Dean. The president of Yaga's Entertainment, Inc. is holding the Wild Texas Galveston Island Shrimp Festival from September 24 to 26. The event is "a celebration of Galveston's wild seafood and island lifestyle" and will feature a gumbo cook-off, cooking demonstrations, children's parade, and a 5k walk/run.

But Dean, who owns two other businesses in addition to Yaga's Café (Tsunami, Float Pool & Patio Bar), isn't complaining about the high cost of seafood. "We've had a great summer. Business is good, and Galveston is doing well. If you remember a while back, it was the same thing with tomatoes. They were so expensive, you could only get one [on your burger] if you specifically asked. If I have to eat a couple hundred dollars a month on shrimp, that's okay."

When I inquired about tourism, Dean jokingly replied," Some days I feel like every other person in my restaurant is a lawyer."

Dean says he was approached regarding compensation from BP after the oil spill. But, he says, "I'm not a litigious person. Like I said, we've had a good year."

A law passed after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 effectively holds BP responsible for cleanup costs but will cap financial losses at $75 million. However, in May several Democratic senators introduced legislation to raise the liability limit to $10 billion. Some say that Galveston-area restaurants hit with costs that have inflated over 35 percent are entitled to compensation. A few dozen lawyers agree.

Other locals feel that BP has already compensated Galveston Island business owners indirectly through an impressive surge of tourism this summer. RoShelle Gaskins, public relations manager for the Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau, reports an interesting trend on its website. From April 22 to June 21, visitors to the website from Louisiana increased by 71 percent, Mississippi visitors went up by 77 percent, and Alabama traffic increased by 40 percent. "We have no way of knowing how many of them actually came to the island, but there was a 17 percent increase in hotel occupancy in May and a 25 percent increase in June," she says, as compared to 2009).

Numbers like these seem especially sweet (and a little surreal) when you take into account that less than two years ago Galveston looked like this. Perhaps it takes one Gulf Coast disaster to make it back from another.

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Lauren Marmaduke
Contact: Lauren Marmaduke