MOBILE, Ala. — On Saturday, I took a trip to the coast. It was the first Saturday since the schools had let out for the summer. Ordinarily the beach would have been packed with locals and vacationers enjoying the white sands and sunny skies. But on Saturday the beach was almost deserted. I found few people but lots of oil. And I saw no one cleaning it up.
Coming from Mobile on Route 59 south, you end at the beach. I was surprised the parking lot was full. But it was quickly clear that the parking was taken by those who wanted to take a look at the oil from the walkway.
I traveled down to the Gulf State Park, where the public access to the Alabama beaches reach for miles. I parked where I had access to the beaches and the pier. A very small sign, easily missed, advised swimmers to stay out of the water because of oil and contaminants. No one read it. Visitors proceeded to the beach. But had they noticed those coming from the beach, they would have seen people washing the oil off feet and belongings at a shower station.
I watched two young girls swim. As they exited the water, they stepped carefully, avoiding the tar balls all over the shoreline. MaryBeth, 17, and Emily, 13, (they did not give their last names) were visiting Gulf Shores from Thomasville with their family. They told me they had already been interviewed by other reporters that morning. I assumed that was because this family was the only family to be found. I asked if they had seen the sign urging folks to avoid swimming. No, they said. They walked to the entrance to see the sign and didn’t enter the water again.
Later, from a megaphone, a ranger announced that a shark was sighted and everyone should get out of the water. The only two others in the ocean exited at that time. The water was now totally free of swimmers and there was not a ship in sight. And the morning sun was beginning to disappear under a veil of clouds. And it started to rain.
I walked up to the covered pier and spoke to the folks congregating there. A family from Birmingham with two very small children had also not seen the tiny sign. Two local — now unemployed — captains remarked, with tears in their eyes, about how sad a situation it was. It was unnerving to see two burly men cry. But you see this everywhere around the coast now.
Though I tried to avoid the mess, my shoes were covered with oil. I went home to Mobile and left the beach behind. But those who love and work there cannot do that.