When I was a kid during the 1960's and 1970's, we spent a lot of time at the beach. We were just like like many Gulf Coast families--as soon as the last school bell rang, mom and dad would load up all the kids into the 1967 Buick LeSabre Land Barge and make the trip to a family place in south Baldwin County. My mom stayed home; my dad commuted from the beach to his job in downtown Mobile.
Three boys had the run of the most heavenly beaches on the planet. The sand is so white, you can hold a bowl of sugar up to a bowl of sand, and tourists can't tell the difference until they taste one. Mom made sure that we had all the sundries--Koolaid, Coppertone, and kerosene. The koolaid was for the hottest part of the day. The Coppertone was to keep the sun from frying our skins (too much). And the kerosene was to remove the tarballs from your feet. Forty-some-odd years ago, tarballs were as common on the beach as a dead catfish. You couldn't take three steps without spotting one and if you weren't careful, you stepped on one. While stepping on a tarball was a bummer, stepping on a catfish meant the day was over--you were going home to soak the wound in alcohol.
I asked my dad one evening, "Where'd all that stuff come from?"
"Out there," he said as he pointed to the horizon.
He then told me that when he was a boy during World War II, he and his father watched the distant glow of burning ships, sinking and releasing their cargo after being torpedoed by German U-Boats between 1942 and 1943. During two short years, some 56 ships were sunk by U-boats along the Gulf Coast. A large number of those were oil tankers, taking crude from ports in Texas through the Gulf to ports up east. Millions of barrels of crude oil were lost, and there was no federal response back then. The oil went where it did, killed what it did, and dissipated like it did. Some two decades later, the tarballs were still washing up on the beach, fouling little boys' feet and being a general pain in the ass. It didn't kill us, and it didn't kill the beaches, either.
The Deepwater Horizon incident is a horrible environmental disaster. Even conservative estimates place the oil spilled at three times the Exxon Valdez spill. Wildlife and the coastline will be affected for years to come. But it still pales in comparison to the Ixtoc spill of 1989, in which approximately 4.8 million barrels were lost. By comparison, Deepwater Horizon has spilled anywhere from one-tenth to one-fifth of that. It's still a large amount and it's still going to do a lot of damage, but it's important to put this into perspective. No one really knows how many barrels of oil were spilled by German U-Boats, but it was a lot, and it was still leaving tarballs more than two decades later.
The Gulf of Mexico survived the Ixtoc disaster, and it will survive the Deepwater Horizon disaster, too. Things will be messy for a while. People used to a way of life will have to adjust for a while. Sooner or later, the cleanup crews will have completed scrubbing the beaches of the last strands of liquid oil. Mark my words, you will see stories a year or so from now explaining how remarkable the area has rebounded.
You might even hear a story or two about moms sending their sons to the beach with koolaid, Coppertone and kerosene.