“I’m thinking one time I’m going to make a run back to the beach and I’m going to see it,” Silvers said. “But I just haven’t.”
Psychologists have said that a disaster like the Gulf oil spill can heighten anxiety and even divide neighbors and family. In Orange Beach, city leaders like Silvers find themselves spending time listening to citizens vent their fears and frustrations.
“What’s been happening in our community is what happened in Valdez,” Silvers said at a recent, impromptu meeting. “Friends started turning against friends. Family members started turning against family members. I’ve had family members question me.”
A frequent concern is reports and rumors of toxic dispersant in the air.
Councilwoman Pattisue Carranza, a pharmacist, said that she had seen more and more people seeking prescriptions and medications this summer for “thick throats.”
There’s something, she said, that’s “making people behave differently” and “making people cough and giving people headaches and nausea.”
An emergency survey conducted door-to-door in coastal Alabama confirmed elevated levels of depression and stress following the oil spill and also detected possible effects, such as respiratory ailments, according to a preliminary report.Carranza said, “I don’t think it’s time to raise flags. But there’s a message out there that needs to be one of be cautiously aware of your own body. What kind of warning do we put out that’s a positive warning and not a panic warning? You want to be honest with people and tell them this is what’s going on, but you don’t want to alarm them.”
Mayor Tony Kennon said he doesn’t sense an increased level of sickness, and he and many other elected leaders insist that the air and water are safe.
But at the impromptu meeting, which Kennon opened to the public to discuss concerns about the spill, the mayor said, “I don’t know why we’re divided.”
Community division isn’t necessarily unusual in such situations.
Steve Picou, a University of South Alabama sociologist who studied effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, has cautioned that the Gulf disaster could lead to what he called a “corrosive social cycle.” In Alaska, the spill caused stress and built conflict in relationships where there previously was none.
At last week’s meeting, Margaret Long, who has lived on Cotton Bayou for 61 years, spoke of possible dispersant in the water.
She said she pulls up traps from the water and her hands sting, as if from a chemical burn.
“How long are we going to have this stuff here?” she said. “When is it going to be safe for us to get back in the water? I’ve been here all my life. I’ve cried. I’ve gotten mad because I don’t know what’s going on.
Even Police Chief Billy Wilkins approached the microphone at last week’s meeting in an attempt to dismiss rumors. He said he was sick before the spill, with lung problems, and that he has since recovered.
“In my case, it came out OK,” Wilkins said. “I’m not saying it would in every case, but I was a person who had very much concern about it.”
Councilman Ed Carroll Sr. called for continued research into the air and water quality.
“I don’t have a magic wand to make it all go away,” he said. “If somebody can come up with a solution, we’ll do our dadburnedest to get it done and make sure that we find out whether we have it or we don’t have it. And I think we owe that to our citizens.”