- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2010

PENSACOLA, Fla. | The hole in the bottom of the ocean that’s been spewing oil into the Gulf for two months has sent the lives of John Struchen and his wife, Kathy, into a tailspin.

Business at their sailing school, located on a small harbor in this shoreline city, already had plunged 50 percent as would-be customers leery of creeping black sludge take their sailing vacations elsewhere. Then, on a recent day off, Mr. Struchen got a call telling him that someone had suddenly placed containment booms beyond the harbor, blocking his boats from the sea. He has spent the ensuing days on the phone trying to figure out who put the booms there and how to get them removed, at least often enough for him to take his boats out.

He and his wife now fear for their nest egg - the couple had hoped to sell off the school for a comfortable sum to fund their retirement - but the 56-year-old owner of Lanier’s Sailing Academy has a message for those mulling a boycott of BP: Don’t.

“Don’t they realize it’s BP’s money that’s paying these claims?” he said. “It makes no sense.”

Tuesday brought even more bad news when scientists said the ruptured well could be leaking up to 2.52 million gallons of crude each day, an increase from previous estimates.

So far, the Struchens have received one flat-rate $5,000 check from BP. But Mr. Struchen said another payment is on the way to compensate them for losses they sustained last month, and though the claims process is slow, the money is a big help when it comes to paying bills on lost revenues.

Though he wasn’t one of the local business owners to meet with President Obama, Mr. Struchen’s story is typical of what the president heard during his two-day trip to the Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coasts.

Mr. Obama said part of his goal was to get a sense for what’s going right and what’s going wrong on the ground, but he also sought to urge Americans to visit and spend money.

“This is a still place that’s open for business and welcoming, so vacationers and people can have a wonderful holiday here,” the president said at the Fish Sandwich Snack Bar in Pensacola, Fla.

During his time on the shore, Mr. Obama did his part to help the tourism industry by chowing down on shrimp, crab claws, fried pickles and a monstrous plate of nachos as he ate his way across the Gulf Coast.

On Monday night, he surprised diners at Tacky Jack’s Tavern in Orange Beach, Ala., which patrons can no longer reach by boat because the water access has been closed.

“I’m glad he came,” Betty Clem, a local resident, told the Mobile Press-Register. “That’s what we need. He needs to see the area and meet the people to get a feel for what it’s like.”

Outside Tacky Jack’s, the paper reported that a man held a sign that read: “You have two ears. Use them.”

Scott Wienberg, owner of Blow Fly Inn restaurant in Gulfport, Miss., said his business has been hit hard from both ends of the spectrum: Customers are staying away, and his overhead costs are higher because supplies are more scarce.

He said he’s paying 25 percent to 30 percent more for crabs, shrimp and particularly for oysters - and that he probably will have to raise menu prices soon to cover the higher costs.

Mr. Weinberg, one of the Gulfport business owners who met with Mr. Obama on Monday at Ken Combs Pier restaurant, shared a lunch of fried shrimp, crab cakes and miniature shrimp-salad sandwiches, along with stories of the spill’s hardships. After lunch, Mr. Obama and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour got lemon-lime treats from Cindy’s Sno De-Lites.

Mr. Weinberg said he was particularly happy that the president urged Americans to visit and spend money. He said that could help combat sensationalized press coverage, which has led potential visitors to think the entire region is soaked in oil and not worth visiting. He said one person called the first week in May to cancel a catering order six weeks out for a family reunion.

“They thought the oil had hit our shores, and that just wasn’t the case,” Mr. Weinberg said.

He added that he was pleased to see Mr. Obama push oil companies to come up with better technology to handle spills, and said he doesn’t blame the president for the pace of the response.

“I’m going to hold my judgment on how he handles it until I see how he handles it from here on out,” Mr. Weinberg said.

Mr. Struchen, the sailing school owner in Pensacola, said he’s not angry either and that he feels like he’s one of the luckier business owners.

While waiting for checks from BP, he said, his sailing academy can rely on a modest amount of cash from club members who have paid dues in exchange for regular use of the boats. If he can’t get someone to move the booms regularly, he said, he will move his sailboats to another harbor.

He hopes that he and his wife can sell the school as originally planned if Mr. Obama’s prediction that the Gulf will bounce back is realized in a few years.

Meanwhile, one of their biggest fears is being left with weakened business and no investment capital to rebuild it. “Eventually they’re going to quit writing checks,” he said of BP. “I’ve spent a fifth of my life building this business. I’m not anxious to go back to the work force or start over again.”

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