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Gulf oil spill: Gulf Islands concessionaire 'wiped out'

May 3, 2010 |  1:58 pm

Preparing for the worst, Louis Skrmetta sailed 12 miles Monday from Gulfport, Miss., to tiny Ship Island, one of the few tourist concessions where a visitor can enjoy food and other amenities while taking in the scene at the Gulf Islands National Seashore. 

For eight decades his family has run a concession on the narrow, 6-mile-long island covered with waist-high grass and sand dunes interspersed with fresh water ponds patrolled by alligators.

On an average weekend, Skrmetta ferries about 1,200 people in three vessels to the island for daylong stays. With the Memorial Day weekend approaching, this is typically his busiest time of year.

When the oil disaster hit, Skrmetta had just finished stocking coolers with beer and soda and had set out 100 blue canvas umbrellas and 250 folding oak chairs on the beach.

But his preparations, and his future, have shifted dramatically. Instead of feverish preparations for the crowds, Skrmetta is now focused on shutting down his business and storing away his valuables. On Monday his crew was busy unplugging nacho machines and stowing away coolers, umbrellas and chairs. Already, 70 school groups have canceled field trips.

Shipisland2 His customers have all but disappeared; not even regular fishermen are showing up for a ride.

“We are wiped out -- this could bankrupt me.” Skrmetta said. “We just set the beach up in anticipation of the start of the summer tourist season. We were projecting 50,000 people from all over the nation.”

Although no oil has yet washed ashore, in an ominous sign, his crew members found a Northern Gannet, unable to fly and its head covered in oil.

---Louis Sahagun in Gulfport, Miss.

Upper photo: Robert Skrmetta, whose great-grandfather started the family tourism business on Ship Island, hauls a load of beach chairs to be taken off the island as the oil spill threatens the business. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times 

Middle photo: Beth Skrmetta carries in chairs at the tour business on Ship Island. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times 

Lower photo: A dead fish on the shore at Ship Island. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times