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.
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.”