Sing praises of beaches, lawmaker says

Published 12:03 pm Thursday, June 17, 2010

Getting the word out that Gulf Coast beaches are still virtually oil-free is as important as tracking BP and state agencies’ response and cleanup efforts, said the chairman of a select state Senate disaster assessment committee.

Fewer hotel bookings and shrinking restaurant tabs in a region still wracked with reminders of Hurricane Katrina are affecting the area’s “bread and butter,” state Sen. Billy Hewes told a Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday.

“It’s a horrible domino effect that we’re dealing with,” Hewes said of what he termed “erroneous reporting” by media worldwide of the disaster’s scope in Mississippi, which Gov. Haley Barbour has blamed for causing drops in tourism. So far, cleanup efforts in state waters have taken place only on Petit Bois Island and tar ball collections have been minimal. The state’s proximity from where midsummer winds direct the water current — eastward and away from the beaches of Biloxi and Gulfport — has been mentioned as a possible reason.

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Hewes said a photo taken by the London-based Reuters news service “a week or two” after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig went up in flames misidentified crews clearing sticks and seaweed from a beach as oil being cleaned from Gulf Coast beaches.

Hewes, R-Gulfport, was named to chair one of two committees in each body of the Legislature to track the cleanup and, possibly, recommend action by the full House and Senate. Most committee members represent areas in the coastal counties of Hancock, Harrison and Jackson.

BP, the Coast Guard and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality “are doing everything they can,” based on hearings held with the select Senate committee, Hewes said.

“With hurricanes, we know what to do. We know how to act and we’re used to acting. Right now, we’re doing told to wait,” Hewes said, adding officials’ emphasis on tourism and tourism grants BP has paid to four Gulf states doesn’t mean they’re downplaying the spill.

“A lot of folks have criticized some of our public officials for downplaying it,” Hewes said. “There’s nothing to downplay. This is a very serious ecological disaster. We hope it does not come to our shores, but if it does we’re gonna be prepared.”

Shareholder dividends have been halted to finance a $20 billion fund to compensate victims of the spill along the Gulf Coast, a major piece of talks between BP officials and President Barack Obama. Establishment of a long-term restoration plan for the Gulf Coast — to be developed by Secretary of the Navy and ex-Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus — is the “proper thing to do,” Hewes said.