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Gulf Shore family trying to stay afloat

Logan Heyne,5, Xander Heyne,3, and Natasha Heyne (left to right) wait for workers to pass by as they search the beach for tar balls to be picked up as they wash ashore from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill site in Dauphin Island, Ala.

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: It took more than a month for the oil spewing from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico to slosh its way toward land. But finally this week it appeared, lapping at the shores of Louisiana's marshlands and confirming the worst fears of those who make their living in the Gulf's waters and along its shoreline.

And a very personal chaos is playing out in additional to the environmental wreckage -- in thousands of homes where incomes are threatened by the disaster.

From WBHM in Birmingham, Ala., Tanya Ott reports.


Tanya Ott: It's Friday morning and Tracy Thrasher quietly scrambles to make the beds in a vacation home in Gulf Shores, Ala. Tourists are in town for a music festival and they need somewhere to stay.

Tracy Thrasher: I'm doing a rush job, 'cause they're already here and they want to rent the house, so I have to run in and try to get it as clean as I can.

Tracy's just happy to have the work. She cleans vacation rental homes, but since the oil rig exploded last month, tourists have been canceling their vacations -- all the way through July. Tracy's worked just two days in the last three weeks. Her income has gone from $800 a week to just $100. Her husband, Kelly, is a building contractor who depends on vacation rentals for most of his business. He says their financial well is running dry.

Kelly Thrasher: Normally, this time of year I'm working seven days a week around the clock, you know. Just like today, I get a half a day. It's just not happening. People ain't coming.

And they may not for a while.

Kelly: I and you both know right now there's no oil on these beaches. You know, but the people's not here. How do you tell them that there's no oil on the beaches? You can't. I mean, they don't believe it.

The Thrashers can't believe their bad luck. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan's high winds and surf devastated this part of Alabama. Hurricane Katrina hit the following year. And before the region had time to recover, Tracy Thrasher says they were hit with a third stroke of bad luck -- the mortgage crisis.

Tracy: Most definitely stress, stress all the way around.

Insurance companies delayed their payments to people whose homes were damaged in the hurricanes. That, along with the housing crash, meant Kelly couldn't find much work. The Thrashers burned through $12,000 in savings in just a few years. Tracy took a job cleaning rental homes this spring. Sometimes, Kelly helps out.

Tracy: Extra cash, we need more money with the economy the way it is, nobody's doing any construction work, so we figured we'd start cleaning houses.

Kelly sold his two precious motorcycles. Tracy loved going to the movies. They don't anymore. They started renting videos, but the only place in town recently closed. The Thrashers have also sliced and diced the food budget.

Kelly: Instead of going and spending $100 for the week, you go and spend $40 for the week. Sandwiches instead of steaks.

Emily, their fourth-grade daughter, is a voracious reader. She loves Japanese comic books called Manga. She used to feed her addiction with frequent visits to Books-A-Million. But now, she has to rely on the library.

Emily Thrasher: It feels kind of sad, 'cause there's like this one Manga that I really want to have, but I can't have it. They don't have Mangas in the library at school.

Tracy: Oh, it's so hard! How do you explain to a nine-year-old, "We need to cut back. I'm sorry. Allowance maybe next week."

Or maybe not, since there is nothing to fall back on. Kelly Thrasher has always been self-employed and never saved for retirement. "Those are things for rich corporate-type people," he says.

Applying to British Petroleum for reimbursement of lost income won't help much: BP wants two years worth of tax returns, but Tracy's only been cleaning houses for a few months, and Kelly, well, he admits he does a lot of work for cash.

Kelly: I guess you pull out the newspaper and start looking for another job.

Kelly's already lined up a job 300 miles north in Birmingham. It's a quick, one-time gig that pays a couple thousand dollars. But subtract the gas and a motel for him and his crew, and Kelly says there will be little left over.

This tragedy in the Gulf may prompt some families to change their financial lives. But for this family, and probably many others, that's just not possible.

In Gulf Shores, Ala., I'm Tanya Ott for Marketplace Money.

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