BusinessWeek on BP’s Economic Devastation of the Gulf

If it’s hard to get your head around an environmental disaster on the scale of BP’s Gulf oil spill, it’s even harder to grasp the economic damage being done.

Measuring how much oil is gushing out of a hole in the seabed a mile deep is hard enough, as we’ve seen. Trying to figure out the indirect economic costs due to the spill is something else.

So Bloomberg BusinessWeek works with what it’s got: On-the-ground reporting on how the oil spill is affecting Gulf Coast business owners. The vignettes from across four states add up to a picture of how the coastal economy—so dependent on tourism, fishing, and energy production—has been gutted. And it puts it on the cover.

The magazine structured the piece well. Rather than write a text-heavy story full of anecdotes, it has a short lead-in story by Ken Wells followed by eight pages of photoraphs and brief texts summing up the subjects’ woes—from the beach-wedding planner to the restaurant manager to the mini-golf-course operator.

If there’s a potential quibble here it’s that BusinessWeek looks almost exclusively on business owners rather than workers. But that’s mitigated by the fact that it focuses on small-business owners and entrepreneurs like the guy who started a roadside vegetable stand and a fisherman who bought the “boat of his dreams” for $10,000.

And the medium-sized business Wells talks to illustrates as well as any the impact the spill is having on the economy:

Dean Blanchard, a blunt-talking 51-year-old Cajun, figures the BP gusher has cost his Grand Isle (La.) shrimp processing plant about $30 million in sales to date. Grand Isle’s beaches were among the first to be hit by BP’s oil, and he was soon shut down. “I got a death sentence from Day One,” he says. From 90 employees, “I’m down to eight workers.”

True, some ex-employees are skimming oil for BP, and it’s proving far more lucrative for them than shrimping ever was. Those lucky enough to sign on with BP are getting as much as $2,000 a day for their boats. Others are getting BP payouts, collecting $2,500 a month.

“But some of these are guys that were making $5,000 to $6,000 a month with me,” says Blanchard. “The idea that BP is making people whole is a lie….They are making people that were poor, rich, and people that were rich, poor. They’ve turned everything upside down.”

If there’s another quibble it’s with the cover of the magazine. It has this good headline:

The idea that BP is making people whole is a lie”

From the Gulf, a portfolio of business owners on the brink

But it dilutes its gravity with an adjoining:

Also: What’s Tony Hayward doing in Abu Dhabi?

I have a hard time thinking that one’s selling magazines. So why not leave that for the table of contents? Nevertheless, this is an overall good effort from BusinessWeek.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.