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Messages in the sand: Anxiety, hope on oil disaster anniversary

By Nicole Saidi and Katie Hawkins-Gaar, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Oil disaster still fresh in minds of many Gulf Coast residents, even if visual evidence is mostly gone.
  • Some are concerned about the economies and ways of life in affected communities.
  • iReporters shared messages written in the sand to bring their hidden feelings to the surface.
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(CNN) -- Maybe time heals all wounds, or maybe it doesn't. Eileen Romero of New Orleans says the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster isn't at the forefront of her mind anymore, but she's still upset all the same.

"I'm still just as enraged as I was then," she said. "I'm still very angry. The fact that oil is still washing up on our shores really makes me sick."

Romero says her old favorite surf-fishing destination, Grand Isle, Louisiana, may be forever changed. The Hurricane Katrina survivor has made two-hour trips from her home in New Orleans to document what's happening on the Gulf Coast.

One year since the oil disaster began, there's a sense of unease permeating the communities that were hit by it. Even if the brownish oil isn't still washing up on shore the way it was, Gulf residents are telling us they don't feel completely comfortable.

We decided to check back in with some of the iReporters whose stories we featured and profiled to see how things are going a year later. Several became part of CNN iReport's Gulf Journals series, which took a look at the disaster through the lens of several different people in different places.

Gulf Journals: Documenting a disaster

Romero worries where the oil went and how it is affecting the creatures that live in the water.

"It didn't all evaporate, and that's my thing," she said. "The oil is sitting on the bottom of the Gulf."

The FDA has tested Gulf seafood and deemed fish and shellfish harvested from reopened and unaffected areas safe for consumption. But Romero says she hasn't eaten any seafood since the oil disaster began. She doesn't fish either, and her last visit to Grand Isle was six months ago. She's saddened by what she's seen.

"I don't believe that it's all gone because I saw it firsthand. You can't tell me that the oil is all dissipated and it's not affected our seafood."

After a recent report that 15 dolphins had been found to date with either confirmed or suspected oil on their carcasses, she says she felt more justified in her decision to abstain from seafood. She said she felt that there was a noticeable silence at the shore the last time she was there, and fewer dolphins and birds.

As for the community as a whole, Romero says the tiny, narrow island is emptier, giving a "kind of a ghostly feeling" for visitors.

"During the summer you can hardly drive down the main road," she said. "Now it's like there's nobody there. It's become a ghost island."

Gulf Journals: Committed to tell their story

She expressed sadness about the Louisiana economy, which is intricately entwined with the geography of the Gulf region through oil drilling, fishing and tourism. Romero says residents have what she describes as a love-hate relationship with the oil rigs.

"The same mouth that feeds them is the same mouth that caused the disaster," she said. "Their families work out on the rigs. That's all they know. If they're not a fisherman, they're on the rigs."

But Romero is anxious to revisit and see how things are going. She plans to make the trip out to Grand Isle for the anniversary of the oil disaster and she hopes the region can recover and become a fishing paradise again.

Surviving tragedy after tragedy

For many Gulf Coast residents, the Deepwater Horizon spill wasn't their first environmental disaster. Randy Hamilton lived through the devastation of Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

The oil that began washing up on the shores of Pensacola, Florida, last year was yet another tragedy to endure.

The 41-year-old artist and his wife lost their house after Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The sudden destruction spurred them to take off in a motor home and live on the road for four years. During that time, they started an art project called One Shoe Diaries showing photos of unmatched shoes they found along the way, and the stories behind them.

Things were improving and a baby was on the way. The Hamiltons moved back to Pensacola, and then suffered a heartbreaking setback: the stillborn loss of their son.

A year went by and Hamilton family began to settle back into a regular kind of life. The shoe project was a source of comfort. Baby daughter Nora was born and things started looking up.

But the Gulf oil disaster of 2010 brought yet another tragedy to the beach town. Hamilton can't forget the "heartbreaking" day when the oil slick finally washed ashore, tarnishing the white sand.

Hamilton's often whimsical, sometimes serious shoe photography project took a poignant turn when he captured an image of an oil-stained sandal that had washed up on the beach.

Gulf Journals: Lost soles on an oiled Florida beach

As the oil disaster saga continued through the summer, fewer and fewer tourists visited Pensacola. Hamilton's photography business suffered. He witnessed a lack of productivity and morale among his neighbors and friends. More than anything else, though, Hamilton worried about the environmental effects on his daughter.

"I hated thinking that she may never know the beaches like we knew it. At that point, you didn't know what would come," he recalled. "We were worried that she wouldn't be able to walk on those beaches."

Some days, Hamilton said the smell of oil was so bad that his family would have to stay indoors to escape it. "It smelled like a mix of diesel fuel and lighter fluid -- it made you nauseous."

But despite it all, Hamilton stayed positive, waiting for the disaster to end.

BP plugged the rig 87 days after the explosion, on July 15, 2010. The smell dissipated slowly over the months following the disaster and close-knit Pensacola started to return to normal.

During a warm spell in late December, Hamilton and his family finally visited the beach. They haven't gone into the ocean yet, but they've been taking little Nora to daily swim classes.

Today, Hamilton seems more optimistic than ever. Spring break recently brought many visitors to the beach, a good sign for the summer ahead.

And though Hamilton and his neighbors have faced a fair share of hardships, the proud father believes looking forward is the key to moving on.

"What keeps me going is what I do have -- my wife and my daughter. You can't think about what you've lost."

Some scars still linger

Karen Baker of Gulfport, Mississippi, has lived through both Hurricane Katrina and the oil disaster. One year since the oil washed up on the beach, she can't bear the sight of the same sand she loved.

When disaster comes, sometimes it's the emotional scars that linger long after crews have scraped the debris away. She used to go to the shore every day, even after Katrina, but her last visit to the shore was in September. The trips have become too depressing for her and things just aren't the same somehow.

"Usually I get a sense of calmness and stillness of the water. It just doesn't smell the same since the oil spill. It's hard to describe."

For Baker, the effects of the oil disaster have taken a greater emotional toll on her than the hurricane because she says she feels less control over the recovery process.

She felt like the hurricane gave residents something to rise up against, while the oil disaster is harder to see and define.

"Even as bad as Katrina was -- it devastated the area pretty badly -- but you felt like you as a community could regroup and rebuild everything. You can go down to the beach after the hurricane and help clean up and at least document what's going on. But with the oil spill it's like people don't really want to look at the oil pictures because it looks like a sewage tank exploded."

Gulf Journals: What can you do?

And yet, much of life seems more normal. Baker still has her job with the seafood processor for whom she has worked since August 1991. She had been afraid the oil disaster would raise seafood prices and threaten her job, but so far she's been able to hold on. She's employed at a small corporation that she said feels like family, so she hasn't felt compelled to leave.

Due to her Jewish beliefs, she doesn't eat shellfish, but Baker says she doesn't worry about the safety of eating the creatures. However, she says she fears people will be reluctant to eat foods harvested from the Gulf for some time to come.

Though she says she hasn't personally seen any oil on the beaches, she says she still hears sporadic reports of tar balls in some places and sees cleanup crews from time to time. Sights like those make her wonder about the future of wildlife in the area as well as the humans who visit. She wonders how oil companies will prevent similar incidents from happening again.

"People are going to be wary of coming down here to get to the beaches," she said.

But perhaps most of all, Baker has her eye on the long-term fate of the area: the health of the marshes where seafood is harvested, and the public perception of the beaches in the area.

"I'm just worried about the nature of the seafood business, and what's going to happen to the coastal area," Baker says.

She hopes it can be cleaned up someday and things can return to some semblance of normalcy.

Protecting the Emerald Coast

The future is on the minds of many. Suzanne Forsyth of Chicago, Illinois, echoes others who said they believe it's important to protect the unique shores of the Gulf so their children can see it. Forsyth has owned a house about 300 feet from the shore in Sandestin, Florida, for eight years. She'd visited for many years before that.

The white sands and pure green waters of the Emerald Coast drew her to stay, and the oil disaster broke her heart. A recent interview with a local newspaper brought the memories flooding back, and she nearly burst into tears as she thought back to when the disaster began.

"I remember it so vividly: the colors, the smell, the dead silence on the beach," Forsyth wrote of her memories in an email to CNN. "Big dark blobs of oil were gathering on the once pure white sand. Bright green algae was mingled in this mess on our beach. It was so surreal, like you were there, but not -- almost like watching a movie or being in a dream."

Ever since the oil disaster began, she's been trying to fight her feelings by getting involved with preserving the beach that she says is so unique. When she comes back to the shore from Chicago, it's the brilliant water that greets her at the house near the beach.

She has spent eight months of the past year at the beach, coming to Chicago primarily for her son's football season. She spent more time in Florida than she otherwise would, but she's been compelled to keep working hard.

Although she doesn't have certification to handle hazardous materials, which prevents her from working directly with oil-contaminated areas, Forsyth volunteers where she can to watch the beaches and track the health of wildlife populations.

See Forsyth's messages written in the sand

Her efforts include counting birds, looking for dolphins, monitoring sand conditions and alerting local authorities to possible problems on the shore. She rides along with scientists taking measurements and samples from the water, and even tries to get work done when she's in Chicago. Her goal is to preserve the beach that she loves so much for later generations.

"One of the reasons I'm so involved in this is we have this white quartz sand that's so unique. It is bright white, silky soft, literally, and we have this emerald green water too. They call it the Emerald Coast for that reason."

She's saddened not only by the environmental effects of such an event, but also by how the local economy has been impacted by what she describes as "utter devastation."

"Businesses have closed, restaurants have closed," she said. "The small business owners I know are on the border of bankruptcy."

Like many others who've lived through the oil disaster, Forsyth wonders about the future. She hopes by focusing on her efforts on helping the shores, she can make a positive impact.

"I want my kids and grandkids to enjoy what I've been enjoying for the past 17 years, that beautiful coastline, the Emerald Coast."

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Part of complete coverage on
Impact Your World: How to help
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Depths of the disaster
Get the numbers, see the images and learn how the worst U.S. oil spill has changed lives, ruined economies and more.
iReport: Gulf journals
These stories help us look into the lives of the hardworking people of the Gulf as they watch this disaster take its toll.
Send your photos, videos
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