Tourism officials and business owners whose trades are tied to the beaches on Monday were keeping a wary eye on the wind and efforts to contain more than 160,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil that leaked from a damaged barge into Galveston Bay after a vessel collision Saturday near the Texas City Dike.
How successful the containment effort, led by the Texas General Land Office and including several other federal, state and local agencies, had been was unclear Monday. What was evident was the swift, widespread economic effect the spill already was having on local commerce and the power of perception as potential tourists tuned into news reports and reconsidered vacation plans.
Easing tourists’ concerns
While containing the oil was vital, so was heading off misleading information that could keep tourists away, some island business owners said. Many were working to spread the word that, so far, seawall and west Galveston beaches were unmarred by oil, open and safe.
Although tourism officials were working to ease fears, there was some reason to worry.
While crews were working to contain the slick in Galveston Bay, some of the oil had made its way into the Gulf of Mexico driven by northwest winds.
A weather front was expected to bring strong southeast winds today and Wednesday that would cause rough chop in the bay, making efforts to contain the slick more difficult, and perhaps pushing oil that had reached the Gulf back landward, officials said.
On Monday all manner of businesses — restaurants on Bolivar Peninsula, big refineries in Texas City and the Houston Ship Channel, and hair salons on the island — already were feeling the effects, while managers of hotels and rental properties were fielding calls and doing their best to avoid cancellations by assuring clients any oil washed ashore was on the east end of the island, and not on the West End, where hundreds of rental properties depend on summer tourism.
Ship traffic limited; cruise ships halted
And with the Houston, Texas City and Galveston ship channels and the Intracoastal Waterway still shut late Monday by the U.S. Coast Guard, except to limited traffic, cruise ships filled with thousands of restless passengers were forced to wait overnight in Galveston.
The port had hoped cruise ships could sail Monday. But sailing was delayed after oil was found in the port’s bar channel north of Galveston. Crews immediately began skimming the oil but had to stop at sunset, said Peter Simons, deputy director of the Port of Galveston.
Del Monte vessel Star Quality, freighted with perishable fruit, had planned to dock in port Monday but would have to wait until today.
With strictly limited channel traffic, maritime interests met with the Coast Guard to prioritize ship movement once the channels open. Crude oil and feedstock weren’t making it to Texas City refineries Monday. Industry observers worried a prolonged shutdown would hamper production at Houston and Texas City refineries and cause a brief spike in fuel prices.
But Coast Guard officials said refineries low on feedstock would have high priority today.
Cruise ships and the Del Monte vessel also were high priorities, Simons said.
Island retailers and rental property managers said Monday it was too early to know what the oil spill would mean for their businesses.
Tar balls, which officials say are easier to clean up than sludge, began washing up on Gulf of Mexico side beaches Monday.
“I’m very worried,” said Jim Little, whose family owns gift shop Murdochs Pier at 2215 Seawall Blvd. in Galveston. “Once it starts getting on East Beach and moves to Stewart Beach, it will definitely affect us. Once people hear ‘oil on the beach,’ they assume it’s all over Galveston beaches, thick.
“I already hear people are calling Galveston hotels and wondering whether they should come down.”
Bolivar, Galveston businesses effected
The spill stopped the ferry service between Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula from Saturday to Monday evening, when officials announced it would resume.
But Crystal Beach business owner Bhargav Patel had already felt the business losses at eatery Steve’s Landing. Bhargav also owns sandwich shop Subway and Bay Vue Grocery on the peninsula.
The last weekend of spring break is usually fairly strong. And on Mondays, his businesses usually get a good crowd of construction workers from Houston, Texas City and La Marque building houses on the peninsula. But since the oil spill, business hasn’t been good, Bhargav said.
“This is very horrible,” he said.
LuLu Benavidez, who owns LuLu’s The Salon & Spa, 5205 Ave. U, reported cancellations Monday morning because of the ferry closure.
Claire Reiswerg, whose family owns Sand N Sea Properties in Galveston, said she and employees were receiving calls from worried tourists and trying to be proactive by making calls to say the West End beaches were not affected.
The Galveston Island Park Board of Trustees responded immediately and was keeping tourism businesses informed about containment efforts, Reiswerg said. Most island tourism businesses understand how to respond to disaster, particularly after the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in which 4.9 million barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. Although Galveston beaches were minimally affected — only a few tarballs came ashore — the public perception hurt island tourism.
“We’re really sad this is happening,” Reiswerg said. “But I feel like because of BP oil spill and hurricanes and evacuation, tourism partners really know how to communicate with guests.”
Christina Strommen Stevens, an agent with Realty Associates and owner of Galveston 4 Sale, said she talked to a client Sunday who wanted to cancel an island vacation in July after seeing reports about the spill and photos of oil booms to contain it.
Stevens was able to persuade her to keep the vacation with the promise she could cancel should the situation worsen. Realty Associates manages 30 vacation rentals at the Maravilla condominium development, 9520 Seawall Blvd. on the island’s West End.
“It might delay our bookings for a bit — this is the time of year everyone starts making plans,” Stevens said. “I’m not too worried. Everyone has responded quickly and handled the accident.”