Jul 27, 2011 7:44 AM by Lauren Wilson & AP
GRAND ISLE, La. (AP) - The Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo is a tradition and an economic engine for Louisiana's only inhabited barrier island. This year, it's also a symbol of recovery from last year's Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.
The fishing contest was canceled last year. Instead of playing its usual role as a warm-weather family getaway, Grand Isle was ground zero for spill response. Crude washed up on the beaches.
Officials, business owners and residents were left unsure of when things would return to normal.
"At the time, we didn't know how long the oil was going to flow," Jefferson Parish Councilman Chris Roberts said. "The weekend where we finally sat down and said, `We know what we have to do,' that's when it all kind of set in how serious things were."
Cleanup crews and day laborers filled the island's hotels and restaurants over the summer and into the fall. But that didn't do much for business at Emma Chighizola's shop, Blue Water Souvenirs. She's eager for the rodeo to start on Thursday.
"You have thousands of people who come down," she said. "My business is doing great this summer."
The rodeo starts Thursday and runs through the weekend. The competition, which began in 1928, is touted as the island's largest celebration and typically attracts more than 10,000 people. This year, officials are expecting about 20,000, said Josie Cheramie, Grand Isle's tourism commissioner.
"This one is the big one," she said.
She said the return "signifies yet again that Grand Isle has recovered from another tragedy. Hopefully it signifies to the rest of the nation and to Louisiana that we're open for business."
But the rodeo is not just an economic engine for the island. It is a source of local pride that means more to islanders than dollars and cents.
"It was canceling a tradition. That hurt a lot," said Pat Landry, owner of Landry House, a bed and breakfast. "Thankfully we're going to have it this year."
Landry said his business dropped about 35 percent, but he said the sight of beachgoers and fishermen is a comforting reminder that islanders have overcome disasters before.
Hurricanes "Betsy and Katrina almost destroyed life on Grand Isle," he said. "The spill altered our shoreline, but at least our homes and all were still intact."
Landry, like Chighizola, said the rodeo's return symbolizes recovery.
"Everything is booked and crowded," he said. "We have fish. People are crabbing like their lives depended on it."