In the first hours after the massive crude oil surge abated — but long before anyone knew how long the latest cutting-edge contraption would hold — the second-generation mayor of a south Louisiana fishing village stepped before a packed meeting room and asked for quiet. Among the 200 or so people crowded into folding chairs and standing along the walls of the community center were oyster harvesters, deep-sea fishermen, ice house managers, dockside motel owners and the president of a firm that specializes in making soap for cleaning boats and oil rigs. At least one man wore white rubber shrimp boots, the must-have component of any genuine wetlands ensemble.
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Some had come just to listen to the East Coast attorney chosen to parcel out some measure of justice across the Gulf Coast and here in the town of Jean Lafitte, named for the pirate who two centuries ago exploited the serpentine waterways of Barataria Bay to smuggle contraband to merchants in New Orleans, some 30 miles north. Others held snapshots of their vessels, often the most valuable assets of careers spent on the sea. Many clutched financial records, holding hopes the documents would establish evidence of livelihoods fairly earned — and so abruptly halted.
Mayor Tim Kerner, himself an avid fisherman, seemed to be speaking more to the journalists from CNN and ABC News when he raised his voice to introduce the bureaucrat who would manage distribution of the $20 billion escrow fund established by oil giant BP to compensate victims of its gushing undersea well. Anyone from Jean Lafitte — or any other hamlet tucked onto a fragile inlet along these marshes, for that matter — already knew what he had to say.
“When you can’t make your living — the commercial fishermen, the charter boat captains — then the guy that puts roofs on, the guy that cuts hair, everybody, everybody’s affected,” Kerner said. “And when the cameras go away — you know, they say they capped the well this afternoon — you may not get back to your living for 5 years, 10 years, 15, who knows, maybe 20.”
When BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig burst into flames late on the night of April 20, Gulf Coast residents reacted with tempered gloom. The revelation that 11 workers still hadn’t been found bred a mixture of hope and dread. The assertion of oil company executives that their burst well was leaking a relatively modest 13,000 gallons of sweet crude an hour — with nearly all of it burning off — offered a sense of disaster averted, even as a monstrous fire continued to rage.
Unlike the thousands of other drilling rigs and platforms that dot the crystal blue waters off Louisiana’s coast, this one held a certain familiarity, even for those who don’t make a living in the vast offshore oil fields. Deepwater Horizon had made front-page news seven months earlier when BP announced it had drilled the world’s deepest oil well — a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico — and found an epic store of crude. Local officials touted the discovery as a boon for the regional economy, anticipating a crush of new jobs if the well lived up to its potential to produce 12.6 million gallons of oil a day, about half as much as Alaska’s famed North Slope oil field.
But as confirmation arrived that the lost workers indeed were dead and that BP’s burst wellhead actually had been spewing a violent river of oil since the rig’s collapse, Deepwater Horizon suddenly represented a different prophecy entirely. As state officials closed fishing grounds in step with the spreading sheen and as President Barack Obama shut down the deep-sea rigs that drive a huge segment of the regional economy, anxiety washed in like so much goopy brown sludge. Unlike recovery steps following the killer hurricanes that have ravaged this region in recent years, no one could say exactly what it would take to restore a long-ingrained way of life — or if it even could be done.
After Kerner wrapped up his comments, he ceded the floor to Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer best known for administering the federal government’s September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. With a thick Boston accent, Feinberg explained that the compensation program aimed to cover all personal and commercial losses caused by the oil spill, from canceled hotel rooms to soiled trawlers to blue crabs abandoned to the oily sea.
“Only in America would you see a program like this. This program is designed to help. I’m here begging people to file,” Feinberg said. “As I’ll explain, I think you’re crazy if you don’t file a claim. But that’s entirely your call.”
Despite the buoyant vibe, skepticism simmered. Hands shot up. Feinberg called on 64-year-old Joseph Rogers, who began his life on the water as a deckhand at age 13. Then came the million-dollar question. Rogers had quit shrimping May 31, because suppliers worried about contamination wouldn’t touch his catch. A world away, along Prince William Sound, he said, fishermen still wait for the herring population to rebound more than two decades after 11 million gallons of crude oil poured out of the Exxon Valdez tanker.
Until now, that spill had been the standard bearer for American oil disasters. By the time engineers fitted their so-called “top hat” containment cap onto the Macondo well, an estimated 184 million gallons of oil had flowed into the gulf. Given those staggering facts, Rogers said, how could he possibly know how much to request from the compensation fund?“In Alaska,” he said, “they still can’t fish.”
The human toll
From tuna fishermen cut off from the richest reaches of the Gulf Coast to oil rig roughnecks sent on indefinite furlough to New Orleans restaurateurs forced to eliminate fried oyster po-boys from their menus, the human toll of BP’s oil disaster has spared few in south Louisiana.
By the time state and federal regulators in late July reopened a swath of the gulf east of the Mississippi River to commercial fishing — while maintaining painstaking chemical testing at a growing number of area laboratories — 30,000 fishing families had been directly affected by the disaster, according to Louisiana’s seafood promotion board. Regret flourished, especially among shrimpers who insisted that the early days of their stolen season had produced heavy hauls indicative of a record harvest.
BP hired more than 3,500 boats through its Vessels of Opportunity Program, as much to employ the sidelined vessels as to take advantage of crews who know the local waterways better than the creases of their own palms. But many captains and deckhands who got trained to lay absorbent boom and track the oil’s flow complained that they rarely got called up. Meanwhile, no one could predict the spill’s long-term impact on the coming years’ crops — and, by extension, the state’s $2.4 billion annual seafood industry.
Across the state but nowhere more than in New Orleans, tourism officials feared a halt to the steady momentum they had built following blows to the industry after the 2001 terrorist attacks and, of course, Hurricane Katrina. If the city’s tourism business dropped just 10 percent during the last eight months of 2010, as many as 8,000 jobs could be lost and $500 million sucked out of the city’s struggling economy, the president of the convention bureau estimated.
Meanwhile, Louisianans who make their living in oil and gas feared cataclysm in a sector with a $70 billion statewide economic footprint. Of the 320,000 direct and indirect Louisiana jobs supported by the industry, more than 46,000 positions were said to be jeopardized by the six-month drilling moratorium, which Obama imposed to give federal regulators time to review safety measures and cleanup plans for 33 deepwater rigs, as well as future prospectors.
On the home front, the New Orleans branch of Catholic Charities fought the suffering at five oil spill relief centers across the Louisiana coast. Volunteers by mid-July had handed out about $450,000 in food vouchers and emergency food boxes. Another 240,000 meals went to families served by member agencies in 11 civil parishes, the equivalent of counties.
In another indication of the trauma, Catholic Charities’ mental health crisis unit provided counseling to 5,843 people during the three months after the rig explosion, with dozens more added to the docket daily. Indeed, the agency and several partners in mid-August received more than a third of the $15 million that BP paid out for mental health services across the Louisiana coast. Among those lending a sympathetic ear was Larry Carbo, a fire captain who retired after 30 years with the New Orleans Fire Department. Every day, Carbo engaged with five to 10 people who visited the relief centers, with many of the brief exchanges initiated while helping a client tote bags of groceries to the car. How’s it going, he would ask. Do you sleep at night?
Even before the gushing well was capped, Carbo had heard stories of eminently patient spouses pestering each other about house and boat notes. Husbands, mostly, had begun drinking more. Wives cried daily. Teenagers whose summer jobs trawling for shrimp had been stolen by the spill tried marijuana for the first time. In nearly every case, Carbo said, residents share a sense of frustration over their helplessness to halt a catastrophe with the potential to destroy the very waterways that define their way of life.
“Most of them have a high school education, if that. But when it comes down to fishing, they have a Ph.D. In shrimping, they have a Ph.D. . . . They know the land, and they know the water,” Carbo said. “They’re telling us that they’re losing their culture. Not only are they losing their economy, their way to make a buck, but their culture is being lost because they feel as though they can’t hand it down from generation to generation, just like it was handed down to them.”
Such was the case for fourth-generation shrimper Troy Schultz of Jean Lafitte, who recalled his fishing ancestors with an easy familiarity. “My grandpa’s grandpa was in the business. Then my grandpa got in the business. My dad was in the business; he was a tugboat captain, but he didn’t like it. He wanted to be a fisherman. Then in 1978, we built an 80-foot steel hull in the backyard,” Schultz said, giving credit to a welder uncle. “Then my dad passed, and I was in the business, and when my son come along, he wants to get into the business, too.”
Even as oil continued to foul the marshes and fishing grounds of Barataria Bay, Schultz said he wanted to protect a heritage that, in a world of lightning-fast technology and cross-country commutes, accepted as gospel that grandfather and grandmother, father and daughter could earn a living, side by side, any day of the week. It teaches a solid work ethic, he said, and it keeps the kids out of trouble.
Fishing isn’t a trade with a pension plan. “We die at the end of this business,” Schultz said. But while other people take direction 40 hours every week, generations of men and women he knows have treasured their freedom and the opportunity to earn a living in direct proportion to their effort.
Even so, Schultz found himself compelled to interject harsh reality when his 21-year-old son, Troy Schultz Jr., declared in late July, as officials reopened the waters, that he planned to buy new crab traps and replacement parts for the boat engine. “We’re going to be able to go back. But will there be anything?” the elder Schultz pressed, raising again the specter of the Exxon Valdez as he wondered whether white shrimp larvae had survived the spill. “We might have a good year for one or two years, but anywhere from five to 12 years, you might not have an industry.”
Similar thoughts have haunted Lori Davis, the president of Rig Chem, which manufactures and distributes chemical additives used for drilling and sealing underwater oil wells. Davis and her sister bought the business from their parents, who founded it in 1980 in Houma, in the heart of Cajun country. Its 16 employees include a son, daughter-in-law and cousin of Davis’.
Davis explained recently how her company, through an aversion to debt and a certain professional audacity, managed to carve out a niche among such industry leviathans as Halliburton and Schlumberger. “We’re a little fish in a real big pond. But we do, we compete,” she said. That is, until the federal drilling moratorium virtually zeroed-out sales. Davis hadn’t laid off any employees through late July, but she had begun investigating expansion beyond Louisiana and Texas, a prospect she’d never otherwise have considered for her family business.
Like many in the oil industry here, Davis saw the moratorium as an unfair, industry-wide punishment for the carelessness of BP, Halliburton and Transocean, which split ownership and operating responsibilities on the Deepwater Horizon. Uncertain of the reach of the $100 million BP had committed to assist workers sidelined by the moratorium, Davis said her staff had been “working practically around the clock trying to come up with a solution, looking at new chemical blends that could potentially aid in the cleanup.” They’d prefer to work rather than accept the oil company’s compensation anyway, she said, echoing another common sentiment here.
“My grandson, he teases that one day he wants to work at Rig Chem, and he wants to sit in Nana’s chair. And I have to stop and think,” she said. “My employees have that deer-in-the-headlights look. They know there’s no business coming in. They know there’s no orders going out. They know we can’t operate like this.”
She also worried about her son. “This is all he’s really done. My son met his wife as a result of them working here together. This is all he’s known. So now, what does he do?”
Also considering uprooting his life was Thien Nguyen, a 49-year-old fisherman who made his home in eastern New Orleans’s thriving Vietnamese community in 1983. Before the oil spill, Nguyen, along with four deckhands, hauled in as many as 12,000 pounds of tuna, shark and swordfish on each of the 15 trips they made each summer to the rich depths of the gulf more than 25 miles offshore. After paying his employees and covering the cost of maintenance, fuel and ice, Nguyen took home at least $70,000 a year, he said. When Katrina ravaged his vessel, the Queensland, he rebuilt her with his own hands, welding the twisted frame back into place and replacing ruined radio and radar equipment.
“In Vietnam, my family is very poor. After 1975, some days, my family didn’t have food to eat,” he said in near-fluent English picked up over nearly three decades of casual conversations. “So I work hard. When I go to America, I have to work. If you work hard, you get the big money. If you’re lazy, you get the small money. So I try hard work.”
Months after Deepwater Horizon exploded, though, Nguyen still hadn’t been back to sea. He had deposited a pair of $5,000 emergency support payments from BP and had been trained on how to handle soiled boom through the Vessels of Opportunity program. Like others, Nguyen hadn’t yet been pressed into action, meaning his deckhands also had been sitting at home. At his age, Nguyen said, he saw two options: sell his boat and retire, or head up the eastern seaboard and gauge the fishing conditions between Florida and New York City.
But with oil in the water, who here would buy the Queensland, which Nguyen valued at $350,000? Heading east would mean learning a whole new ecosystem and possibly paying handsomely for a fishing permit. Back home, the oil’s effects on the eggs that would spawn next season’s catch hadn’t yet been revealed. Faced with a trio of impracticals, Nguyen first got angry with BP for destroying his waters. His fury accomplished nothing, the fisherman said, and so he was left with only one thought.
“I just hope they fix it,” he said, “so I can go back again.”
Wetlands at risk
For all the immediate damage the oil spill wreaked upon the residents and economy of south Louisiana, few could begin to fathom, even after the well cap had held for several weeks, what harm would lie ahead for the state’s fragile wetlands, which began vanishing long before BP drilled its ruinous well.
Along the white beaches of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, clean-up crews could comb thick oil and tar balls from the sand. In Louisiana, workers toiled to keep oil out of the delicate marshes that serve as breeding grounds for larval fish, oysters and the regal brown pelican that graces the state flag. Trying to wash away the greasy mess would do more harm than good, scientists said.
Despite their efforts, some 425 miles of Louisiana’s 7,700 miles of tidal shoreline had been fouled by mid-July. While the region’s tropical temperatures had been credited with breaking down the oil faster than in, say, Alaska, no one could forecast the long-term damage on an ecosystem already heading toward extinction. A federal-state process set up to determine BP’s bill for damage to natural resources concluded in late July that it would take seven to 10 years and cost millions of dollars just to come up with a price tag.
The risk reached far beyond coastal communities. The wetlands play a key role in protecting the inland population, including the 1.2 million inhabitants of metropolitan New Orleans, from hurricanes by reducing tidal surges and weakening cyclonic winds. In fact, calls to evacuate the region if a storm of Category 3-strength or higher threatens have now become commonplace, largely because the coastal buffer has deteriorated.
Some experts have likened the BP oil spill’s effect on the Louisiana coast to a cancer patient contracting pneumonia. “We weren’t in too good of shape before the oil spill because of our land-loss issues,” said Kerry St. Pé, executive director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program. “This threatens to eradicate our culture. The places we live, the water we drink, everything is affected by coastal land lost. The marshes and the ridges and the barrier islands protect where we live against storm surges. We’re finding it harder to live where we live, and that includes New Orleans.”
St. Pé, who traces his Louisiana heritage to a French naval officer who arrived in the 1760s, explained that since engineers began building levees to contain the Mississippi River in the early 20th century, less and less sediment has been deposited across the floodplain, retarding the buildup of marsh at the river’s mouth. Locals tend toward this rule of thumb: A football field-sized chunk of Louisiana marsh turns into open water every 38 minutes.
Contributing to erosion were canals and pipelines dredged by oil companies extracting precious crude from beneath the gulf floor, St. Pé said. In the infancy of drilling in the 1940s, state and federal officials saw the marsh as wasteland. By the time experts realized the ecosystem’s importance — Louisiana is home to 40 percent of the nation’s coastal wetlands — the oil industry’s iron grip on the state’s politics and economy, to say nothing of the nation’s growing dependence on gasoline, had become so strong that few dared to challenge the status quo.
Ironically, it is the very petroleum interests which have helped wear away the Louisiana coast that state officials are counting on to finance its repair. In light of the BP oil spill, local leaders have urged the Obama administration and Congress to implement immediately a federal revenue-sharing agreement set to go into effect in 2017 that would split among Louisiana and other coastal states 37.5 percent of royalty revenue from rigs that have gone into production since 2006. The measure would generate about $100 million a year for Louisiana immediately, officials say, with the figure perhaps ballooning to $500 million a year in seven years.
“This is what we were banking on for trying to save ourselves from falling into the sea,” said Ted Falgout, who ran Port Fourchon, a major Gulf of Mexico oil hub, for 20 years and serves as the liaison for ports and parish governments at BP’s command center in Houma. A crawfish and alligator farmer with a bachelor’s degree in fisheries biology, Falgout fiercely opposes the moratorium. It could undercut Louisiana’s ability to rebuild its own coast, he said, especially if deepwater rig operators take the six-month suspension of drilling as a signal that the welcome mat has been removed from the gulf shores.
With Americans’ thirst for oil showing no signs of waning, St. Pé expressed optimism that a new national awareness of the perils of drilling will foster stricter enforcement of safety regulations, which could prevent massive spills in the future. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers estimates that rebuilding the wetlands to protect Louisiana from the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane — and to serve as the critical base camp for oil and gas activity — would cost between $70 billion and $136 billion over 30 years. “It’s not cheap. But it’s cheaper than doing nothing,” St. Pé said.
In advocating for the federal revenue-sharing program to launch immediately, Mitch Landrieu, the new mayor of New Orleans and the brother of Louisiana’s senior U.S. senator, often says that after years of providing key resources to the nation, namely a sizable portion of domestically produced oil, the federal treasury owes Louisiana its share.
If the Port of New Orleans gets shut down, Landrieu said about a month after BP’s well began gushing, “maybe for once the country will really begin to understand how very important this little bitty state is to the nation’s economic and its national security.”
At the altar
Shortly after dawn on the first Sunday in July, the archbishop of New Orleans stood behind a folding table covered with a sheet of white plastic. Before him sat a dozen or so workers on break from their duties at BP’s oil clean-up center in the tiny town of Hopedale, at the tip of the gulf in St. Bernard Parish. A few sipped coffee from Styrofoam cups. One man ate scrambled eggs, hot sausage and grits from a takeout box. Several workers wore two-way radios or neon safety vests.
Pushing aside a small metal container holding bottles of Tabasco and Louisiana hot sauces, Archbishop Gregory Aymond organized a makeshift altar. To celebrate Mass for the men and women on the front lines of the 24-hour-a-day effort to save the Gulf of Mexico, the priest had to come to their turf. In a mess hall just a few hundred yards from the edge of the fouled gulf, he read from Scripture and then delivered this message: “Somewhere, there is a silver lining. We are a people of faith, and we don’t give up.”
About an hour later, Aymond offered similar counsel during another Mass in a hundred-seat church in a one-street town about 20 miles up the road. After the homily, the faithful appealed to Our Lady of Prompt Succor, “that God will protect us from greater devastation from the spill and protect us this hurricane season.”
For his part, Aymond could provide no more answers than all the politicians, engineers, biologists and others who had tried for months to stop the gushing crude. Yet his flock faced crushing anxiety and doubt. So the archbishop, himself a native son of south Louisiana, tried to remind the faithful of the source of their community’s strength.
“Some of you are some of the same faith-filled people who came back after Katrina to rebuild, to be a sign of hope. And now this,” he said. “You are a vibrant people. You are a people who persevere. God will not abandon us. He will see us through this.”
Michelle Krupa is a staff writer at The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. She can be reached at email@example.com.