Mayor’s comments to national oil spill commission

Here is the prepared text of Mayor A.J. Holloway’s remarks to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Gulf Drilling, delivered on the second day of the inaugural meeting of the commission in New Orleans on July 13, 2010.

Good morning, commission members, and thank you for inviting me to be here today.

I have been mayor of Biloxi for 17 years. We’ve been through everything — hurricanes, tropical storms, tornadoes, recessions, depressions, everything — and we’ve survived it all.

The common denominator in those things is that they all had a beginning, a middle and an end.

We can deal with that.

What we have trouble dealing with, is something that will not end.

It’s a new oil spill everyday. Every single day. Day after day after day.

In Biloxi and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we are more fortunate than most. My heart goes out to the folks in the bayous of Louisiana, where fishing and seafood is their entire way of life.

It took two months for the oil to get to us. We haven’t seen the amount of oil that they’ve seen in Louisiana or even Alabama, but the impact on segments of our economy has been just as devastating.

With the closing of waters of all state waters in Mississippi, our seafood industry and charter-boat fishing industries have been decimated.

Imagine that for a moment: No state waters in Mississippi are open for commercial or recreational fishing.

We have a fleet of about 60 charter boats in Biloxi and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The University of Southern Mississippi last month issued an economic impact report on the spill. The word used to describe the revenue picture for charter boats was FREEFALL.

Look at it this way. It’s as if you were a taxicab driver and EVERY street in the city was closed. How can you make a living? You can’t.

It’s the same for shrimpers. Let me give you an idea of the hit to shrimping.

Last year, on opening day of shrimp season, we had 230 shrimp boats in Mississippi waters.

This year, shrimp season opened a few days early at the beginning of June, to get ahead of the oil. We had 67 boats on opening day. The rest were working for BP.

Two days after shrimp season opened, the first closure of Mississippi waters occurred.

A small area closed at first, but it mushroomed — until a month later, on July 2, when all Gulf waters off the Mississippi Coast were closed to recreational and commercial fishing.

Just before the waters closed completely, we were down to just 40 shrimp boats.

Not having shrimp boats creates a domino effect. We have 10 seafood processing plants and unloading facilities in Biloxi. Let me tell you how they’re doing.

Last year, in June, one of them had a payroll of a quarter million dollars. This June, that payroll shrunk to 40,000 dollars. And July is going to be worse, because shrimping has been closed since the beginning of the month.

One of our plants had sales of 820,000 dollars in June of last year, This year it was 190,000 dollars. That’s a drop of 630,000 dollars in sales in one month at one plant.

So that’s the story on the fishing and seafood industry. A freefall.

In Biloxi, tourism is our niche. We get about 4 million visitors a year, which is about a half of what we saw before Katrina.

We have about 13,000 hotel rooms on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. That’s about 30 percent below the 17,000 we had before Katrina.

Our occupancy numbers since the spill began have been on pace with last year, but our revenue in the non-casino hotels is down as much as 50 percent — or $26 million — from the same time in 2009.

And let me say something about 2009: IT WAS A TERRIBLE YEAR. Nationally, it was the worst year since 2004 for hotels.

We were in a recession. Business was terrible. In fact, this year, our tourism folks expected to make the money to pay back what they had to borrow to make it through last year.

When you hear that occupancy is on par and revenue is off that means our small hotels are having to lower their rates to get people in their rooms.

Perception is our biggest problem right now.

We have a total of 62 miles of beaches that are open to the public. We have seafood restaurants that are serving fresh seafood. You can fish in our bays and bayous. We are open for business.

The problem is, people see the national news, and they think every place from Texas to Florida is ankle-deep in oil. That’s just not the case.

And the effects of this catastrophe are going to linger for decades. It’s going to take a lot of work to change that perception and it’s going to take time and money.

Leaders of the hotel industry in Biloxi say that not all of our hotels are going to make it through this crisis. Some of the small ones may become casualties.

They were on the verge of coming through Katrina and weathering the recession. This should have been the break through year. Now, they just don’t know if they have the financial wherewithal to make it through this.

I don’t have all of the answers, but I do have some advice and suggestions, based on what I’ve seen and heard.

I think there needs to be more local control. Local, local, local.

Let me give you some specifics:

—We have a string of barrier islands about 12 miles off the Mississippi Coast and a few islands closer in.

I would have liked to have seen boom placed around those islands to protect them. That could have and should have been our first line of defense.

We suggested boom, but it didn’t happen in all cases, and when it did, it was the 18-inch boom, not the 42-inch that is much more effective.

—We’ve asked for skimmers for weeks and weeks and weeks. We didn’t get them.

When the oil started coming in a few weeks ago, we still didn’t have them. In the 13th hour — not the 11th hour — our governor had to make arrangements to build, buy or lease skimmers.

—When you see an oiled pelican or sea gull in Mississippi, you have to call Mobile, Alabama to report it, and the response is directed from there.
I would think local control works better.

One thing that I will say about BP is this: They have followed through on things they told us — SO FAR, at least.

I appreciated getting funding for equipment on the front end instead of having to wait for reimbursement.

I don’t have all of the answers as I said, and I’m certainly not here to complain.

I know my residents are anxious.

I know they are worried about the day-to-day impact on their lives, and I know that they are worried about the long-term impact, and how this is going to change our way of life forever.

I don’t think a moratorium on drilling is the way to go, but I know that we must have safeguards in place so that this never happens again.

Accidents are going to happen, but our response should be no accident. There needs to be a stronger plan, a better plan, and one that can be triggered immediately. And I believe that the response needs to be driven locally.

Thank you again for inviting me to be here.

Economic impact: To see the economic report the mayor referred to in his remarks, click here.

Biloxi role: To read background on Biloxi’s role in the response to the oil spill, click here.