Westport And The Gulf

As senior vice president of Keep America Beautiful — and managing director of its signature program, the Great American Cleanup — Westporter Gail Cunningham Coen is intimately familiar with the Gulf Coast.  She spent time there following Katrina; she’s made many friends, and even hosted a Mississippi mayor in her Compo Beach home.

Gail Cunningham Coen enjoying a boat ride with Mayor Chipper McDermott of Pass Christian, Mississippi. Note the huge, clean wake behind them.

Now Gail is back on the Gulf Coast.  After 5 public space restoration and beautification projects in Mississippi Gulf during the last 5 years, she’s embarked on a new challenge:  helping her beloved shoreline communities recover from an almost incomprehensible tragedy.

Which includes spreading the word that the BP oil spill is, in many ways, not like the media has portrayed.

“The oil has so far stayed way out in the Gulf,” she told “06880” this weekend.

“The beaches in Mississippi are clear, clean and beautiful.  The Mississippi Sound looks and feels much like Long Island Sound.  It has tides and clear, warm water, broad beaches and soft sand.”

Keep America Beautiful has provided Glad trash bags to its affiliates along the entire coast — all the way to Florida — for beach cleanup before any possible oil landfall (making flotsam and jetsam easier to handle if it does occur).

Fishermen have been hired for up to $5,000 per boat — per day — to guard the booms and look for oil.  Early each evening, they return to harbor in armada-like fashion.

“The seafood in the area can’t be beat,” Gail said.  “The people are warm, friendly, very hospitable — and so sincere.”  Gail encourages anyone who has not been there to visit, and see how great it is to vacation and live.

However, she added:  “Louisiana has been the 1st and main victim of this disaster.  That story is so sad.”

She arrived in New Orleans April 22.  It was the end of the Great American Cleanup Earth Day extravaganza in Times Square, with Miss America, New York VIPs and Broadway stars.

The oil rig had exploded 2 days earlier — and sank on Earth Day.  Gail drove south from the airport, through wonderful-smelling bayou under a half-moon sky.

She had never been to Grand Isle — nor had she heard of it.  Invited to attend the annual Small Gulf Coast Cities Mayors’ Conference, she looked forward to meeting folks whose communities benefited from her organization’s post-Katrina efforts.

Though the conference was upbeat, it was overshadowed by uncertainty about what lay ahead.  Grande Isle fishing camps — restored from hurricane damage, now elevated, attractive and modern — were filled with residents eagerly awaiting the busy season of sports enthusiasts and seafood lovers.

Beaches were pristine; the water sparkled, and pelicans soared in the breezy sky.  Important business discussions were mixed with feasts of jambalaya, gumbo, crayfish and rice and beans.  Wonderful conversations took place in swinging chairs — seating 4-6 people each — suspended from the underside of a building.

Gail had to leave later for meetings in New Orleans.  Her heart had been won long ago by the Gulf Coast; in the days that followed, it broke each day as she watched the disaster on TV.

Now, Gail is glad to be back in the area.  She’s touching base with her many friends, and is trying to lift spirits in small ways.  She is helping Keep America Beautiful share best practices with state leaders.

On Sunday she took a boat ride with the mayor of Pass Christian and his wife.  They looked around — and enjoyed a beautiful Gulf day.

“Take care of Compo Beach for me until I return,” she said.  “And please keep these people in your thoughts.”

7 responses to “Westport And The Gulf

  1. Adam Stolpen

    When Westport looks at its resources high on our list needs to be Gail Cunningham Coen. She’s unique, carrying on a family tradition of involvement….but boy is she carrying it on.

    Gail’s a third generation Westporter who has almost single handedly made sure we’re prepared for disasters on our fabled coast. She’s authored our Emergency Preparedness Manual and for years has been involved (and often leading) efforts to make the Compo beach area both beautiful and most importantly safe during natural disasters.

    Her energy, beauty inside and out and involvement in community affairs here in town makes her the ideal person to be down on the gulf contributing her knowledge and grace. We’re lucky to have her, and glad to lend her out…but only temporarily.


  2. Having been a resident of Texas and the Gulf Coast for nearly three decades, I can tell you that oil spills are nothing unusual. Swimming at Freeport or Galveston can produce a nice batch of oil slick when you depart the Gulf water. “What is this?” my kids would ask as they had a spotch of oil the size of a basketball on their leg. “It is called pollution,” I would answer. To me, the entire Gulf Coast has never had “pristine” beaches because of the wash out from the nearby rigs. The BP diaster, of course, will make things that much worse. It is nice to see the Chamber of Commerce plugging for their tourism but I wouldn’t be planning for your 2011 spring vacation anywhere near the Gulf of Mexico or God forbid, anywhere along the east coast seaboard. It is terribly sad to me what we are doing to his world. Just sad.

  3. Innocent Bystander

    It is nice to hear such optimisim coming from a Westporter on the scene. The media certainly paints an ugly picture. However, it would seem, despite Gail’s reports, that the amount of oil spilled has got to come aground and not just in Louisiana. I am not sure why the Saudi’s have not been contacted to provide skimmers in the Gulf to capture much of the spilled oil. Aramco has handled bigger spills off Africa with good results. BP has brought the great minds in the oil and gas industry to resolve the leak with little results but certainly more can be done besides Glad bags to deal with the spill. Maybe if it lands on Compo Beach this fall, we might just stop driving around these huge gas guzzlers that seem to be the norm here in Westport?

  4. Like Alaska? Or I have land in George West, Texas. Drill baby drill!

  5. Gail, my late mom, your Girl Scout troop leader, would be — and was — very, very proud of you.

  6. Heya i am for the first time here. I came across
    this board and I find It truly useful & it helped me out much.
    I hope to give something back and aid others like you aided me.