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Page last updated at 16:49 GMT, Tuesday, 15 June 2010 17:49 UK

Alabama 'battling' to keep oil spill at bay


Alabama mayor warns domestic violence is 'up 320%' since oil spill

By Kristin Wilson Keppler and Franz Strasser
BBC World News America

They stand like bookends on both sides of Alabama's Mobile Bay. To the west, the town of Bayou la Batre known as the Seafood Capital of Alabama. To the east, the once-thriving tourist city of Gulf Shores.

The towns make a living from different industries but their fates have become intertwined as oil continues to spill near their shores on the Gulf Coast.

The shores of the Bayou, as it is called by locals, are home to a treasure of crabs, shrimp, oysters and fish that thrive and live in the muddy bottom of the waters.

A month ago, the local fishing boats came to port, not knowing when they would venture out again. Now many are on the move again, but they have exchanged the usual shrimp catch to look for oil and birds affected.

They don't want a handout, they want to what they are called to do. They want to earn their money to take care of their own needs and take care of their families.
Stan Wright, Mayor of Bayou le Batre

BP is paying for the smaller boat fishermen to help the local animals, such as the pelican, which have been directly affected by the spill.

"There is not a better gift that a human being can receive than to save somebody else's life," said Stan Wright, the Mayor of Bayou la Batre.

"They don't mind cleaning up oil if it will change their livelihood for coming generations. they know if this community doesn't get cleaned up proper then it's going to be gone, they have a vested interest in this water," he added.

Other locals, donning bright red flotation vests, have decided to help out and are also being employed by BP to spread booms, and fishing for oil and tar. But, for them, and at least today, it is work.

"These people in South Alabama is different," said Mr Wright, "They don't want a handout, they want to do what they are called to do. They want to earn their money to take care of their own needs and take care of their families. They don't want BP to hand them a cheque."

Their goal now is to protect Mobile Bay, knowing once oil gets into the inlet they share with Gulf Shores, there is no way to get it out.

'We're battling'

Gulf Shores is desperate to protect its shoreline of 32 miles of bleached white sand which attracts tourists to the town.

three voices
Three people from Bayou La Batre, Alabama, on how the oil slick is affecting their livelihoods:

Local volunteers are currently walking the length of the shoreline every morning to survey any new damage from small balls of tar to the native sargassum seaweed knotted together by a dark, sticky molasses.

This was the first appearance of the thick crude oil. Now more oil has started to appear and the problems for Gulf Shores may have only just begun. Vacancy signs and empty rental homes along the beach are showing the first hints of the fallout.

"We don't expect a rebound unless the tides absolutely change," said Emily Eiland Gonzalez, marketing director for Kaiser Realty.

The company managed more than 600 homes and apartments along these beaches. But reservations have plummeted since the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, and holding existing ones has become the new focus.

"We just keep telling them 'Wait. See what happens next week. You can cancel the day before and we'll still refund all your money'," she said.

"You know, this oil is kind of like the weather. You can't predict it that many days out. It might not be where they are. We hope."

Some defiant tourists are determined to salvage their vacations. But double red flags along the shore warn visitors not to enter the water. It is illegal and too dangerous now.

Map of Alabama

Holidaymakers make the most out of the difficult situation - Karen Fenimore and her family made the 1,200 mile journey from Wisconsin even after word had spread about the possibility of oil washing up on the shores.

"We could still walk on the beach," she said, "The only thing we worried about was if you couldn't walk, and that hasn't been an issue."

The Fenimore family is a rare one on these beaches. Now the city has convinced BP to help them buy more sand sifters to keep the beaches clean.

Tractors traverse the long stretches, dragging what looks like upside down cars along the water's line. The beaches are left looking combed, white and clean, but the effect is only temporary.

Gary Lepak, owner of the West Beach Grill, knows it will be an ongoing battle for his town.

"It's something right now that we're battling," he said, "And, we're going to have to battle for some time. And I think we've lost our summer."

People in both Bayou le Batre and Gulf Shores refuse to give in to the oil spill like they have refused to be defeated by Hurricane Katrina in the past.

"We've been through hurricanes and we will get through this," said Mayor Wright.

"We will die off one day and people will forget what our names is, but this [town] will keep going. We have to clean up our environment. God will take care of the rest."

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