The Gulf oil spill has replaced most of the shrimp, oysters and crabs flowing into this sleepy coastal hamlet with cash — gobs of it. But if this is a boomtown, it's a bitter one.
Bayou La Batre, population 2,313, has received $8.5 million in BP grant money, more than any other place on the Gulf Coast, but boat operators idled by the spill complain that some of the cash intended to keep them working has gone instead to recreational fishermen and the mayor's brother.
The town that locals call "The Bayou" is in an uproar headed into a town-hall meeting Saturday by the administrator of a separate $20 billion BP claims fund. At the docks, hundreds have gathered for meetings and protests about how the grant money is being spent.
Under their breath, some people even worry about an outbreak of violence. A police car sat for days guarding a marine company that employs the brother of Mayor Stan Wright.
"This town has gone money crazy," said boat operator Christopher LaForce.
Fishermen in this Alabama shrimping capital of "Forrest Gump" fame have turned largely to work cleaning up the oil spill. A crew of two in a small boat can bring in $1,600 for a day's work, better in many cases than they used to make fishing, but they do the work without knowing when the cleanup money will dry up and whether their industry will be back when it does.
The pay comes from the company responsible for the spill, BP PLC, which has distributed more than $245 million so far in grants to Gulf Coast states for cleanup and tourism. Alabama, Florida and Mississippi have passed on much of that money to municipalities, while state agencies are handling the work in Louisiana.
The Bayou's share has been far heftier even than that received by much larger Gulf Coast cities and counties because its cleanup work extends well beyond the town line, covering the entire southern coast of Mobile County, said Jeff Emerson, a spokesman for Gov. Bob Riley.
The money, which amounts to about $3,675 for every Bayou La Batre resident, has helped keep the town buzzing. Scores of boats cruise in and out of the inlet most days, and traffic is busy along the main drag, Wintzell Avenue.
But with so much cash flooding a blue-collar town, people focused sharply on who was getting what. Quickly, Bayou La Batre was buzzing over claims that Mayor Wright and cronies were setting up their family and friends with BP money.
Much of the controversy centered on Wright's brother Gordy, who was working for a marine company that received a city contract for BP-funded work. The mayor said nothing was wrong with the arrangement, but another company has since been brought in under a new arrangement with BP.
Other sore points are that pleasure fishermen were sharing in a pot meant for commercial anglers whose jobs were lost, and that some of the city work has gone to people from out of state. Recreational boaters, including some from out of town, were indeed getting BP money in Bayou La Batre and elsewhere, but officials say they're being cut out of the mix across the Gulf, where BP has spent $4 billion cleaning up and containing oil.
Stan Wright, who has been mayor for about a decade and is known for his ubiquitous green John Deere cap, says he's done nothing wrong. He responded to some criticism of the city's boat program by suggesting that gripes were coming from captains and mates who couldn't pass required drug-screening tests. He also accused captains of stealing fuel from a larger program run by BP.
Captains and crewmen responded by rallying against the city. Hundreds signed a petition against Wright's and the city's involvement in the coastal protection program, and meetings at the state docks turned into angry rallies largely focused on how BP money was being spent.
Dominick Ficarino, who owns a seafood processing plant in Bayou La Batre, said officials made mistakes as they quickly distributed BP money in the city, which was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and was the hometown of Forrest Gump's best friend, Bubba, in the 1994 movie. He said mistrust and jealousy spread as fast as the money in a town where the median family income is only $27,580 annually — roughly the same as running a boat for BP for 17 days.
"BP tried to move in here very quickly, and what they tried to do got out of hand," he said.
BP has tried to quiet the uproar and began funding the cleanup work differently earlier this month.
City leaders now recommend which boats are hired for protection work, but only as part of a group that includes fishing organizations. BP, not the city, is now in charge and issuing checks, said Matt Kissinger, a BP executive who helps oversee the "vessel of opportunity" cleanup programs.
With so much oil in the Gulf, officials say it could be months or even years before the last tar balls come ashore. Many just hope the town returns to the days when life was about fishing and the biggest worry was hurricane season.
"Things are tense here," said Barbara Reid, who lives in nearby Coden. "I don't know what's going to happen."