Kids of the Gulf

Last Summer, and again this Spring, I heard story after story about people along the Gulf coast whose lives had been turned upside down despite the lack of widespread attention on their struggles. This April, one year after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the point was really driven home that kids and families are enduring a great deal of silent suffering as a direct result of the BP oil spill in 2010. The stories continue to echo in my head, and when the opportunity to work with kids down on the Gulf coast came up, I jumped in with both feet.

Spirit of the Gulf Coast came about because of a desire to learn and share what was happening on the coast with the hopes that we could come together and reduce the likelihood of these disasters occurring in the future. Feedback for our modest initiative came on the radar of the newly formed Ian Somerhalder Foundation this Spring. This connection led to the introduction to 2 incredible young change makers that are active volunteers and determined to make a difference in areas most impacted by the oil spill.

These kids are highly engaged and have mobilized tens of thousands of other kids around the world by spearheading the self-proclaimed Kids Army on Twitter. They are ready, willing, and able to affect change right now. They told me they wanted to help with the oil spill and asked me what I thought they should do.

Enter Kids of the Gulf.

Devin DrawingKids of the Gulf is a new documentary initiative that will follow 7-year-old Devon and 13-year-old Devin as they visit the Gulf coast this November and connect with kids and families in local communities from Grand Isle, Louisiana to the Florida panhandle.  The production will culminate in a professional quality, made-for-TV film that will show the world how kids are dealing with the oil spill and what lessons can be learned as a result of this unfortunate tragedy.

Director Adam Dukes and Executive Producer Leigh Halsema from The Know Better Effect, a TV show about kids learning and taking action on important social issues, have come together with me to make this film. The synergy here is remarkable, and I strongly believe that this film will inspire kids around the world to speak up and take action on social and environmental issues they care about in their own communities.

Today, I’m asking for your support to help us make the film.

The energy that these kids are bringing to the table is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and they are committed to making an impact by sharing this journey of discovery and learning with the rest of the world. This is where you can help!

We are raising money on Indie GoGo to pay for production costs, and I’m asking you to please consider becoming a contributor to the film. We have some really cool rewards for supporters, but in reality the best reward we can offer is the sense of satisfaction knowing that you’ve made a huge impact on not only these kids, but kids around the world that are inspired to act as a result of seeing the film.

Please help us out, and become a change maker yourself. Thank you for the support, and we’ll continue this conversation over at the Kids of the Gulf website.


09 2011

Stories of Struggle and Triumph along the Gulf Coast

My recent trip to the Gulf coast 1 year after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion was full of interesting conversations, varied perspectives, and conflicting feelings.  I spent more time along the Alabama coast this time, and had a chance to talk to a couple of commercial shrimpers at length during the 4-day trip.

Oil Lawyer Bayou La Batre AlabamaAs I mentioned in the previous post, many of the fishermen on the coast continue to struggle with the economic impact of the spill.  Between the distrust of seafood safety in the public eye and the lost revenue from operations in 2010, there is tremendous hardship that is not easily remedied.

The stories of people being made whole do not accurately reflect the reality of conditions on the ground for everyone on the coast.  I heard over and over that claims had not been paid, or were denied due to red tape or lack of documentation.

Minh Le Coden Alabama

One of the shrimpers we talked to even went to far as to describe the negative impact the payouts have had on the labor force. In his opinion, paying people to not work not only doesn’t make them whole, but it creates a false sense of entitlement, which makes engaging the labor force in the future that much harder. In other words, money does not solve the problem.  He believes that people need work to be whole, not handouts.

I had the opportunity to meet the Chauvin family on Grand Isle, who graciously welcomed us into their beach home last August. They were back at their summer camp and out fishing on the waters off the island with their grandchildren.  Life has returned to normal for them and they seemed relieved to be back in their home that 1 year ago was full of rowdy cleanup workers.

We did not visit the main tourist centers, as that has not been a primary focus of our work.  However, we heard anecdotally that business is booming in the tourist towns along the coast.  Spring Break seemed to be a success this year, and we even heard reports of business being up this year compared to previous years.  Some of this was credited to the massive advertising campaign that promotes the vitality of the Gulf coast by BP.

Speaking of spending, people are buying stuff with their BP money.  Cars, trucks, boats, clothes, etc. The stories I heard on this past visit are almost identical to what we heard last August.  Some people made out like bandits, while others received little to no assistance.

This brings up an interesting point, which is where the conflicting feelings come into play.  It is clear that trust in the cleanliness and safety of the water and beaches is critical for the local coastal economies, but so is trust in the safety of the seafood.

It seems that one industry has been made more whole than the other.  Clearly, tourism is winning, while seafood struggles.  But why?  Perhaps the use of chemical dispersants during and after the spill essentially allowed the visual images of 200 million gallons of oil in the water to quickly be hidden away so that life could return to ‘normal’ on the coast.  But at what cost?

Cutoff Louisiana

There have been widespread reports of health concerns along the coast, and this was reiterated by locals that I spoke to.  Respiratory problems, headaches, scratchy throats, and other symptoms were common amongst many of the people I interviewed. Local grassroots organizations have formed such as the Gulf Coast Barefoot Doctors, a group of lay people that seeks to teach affected residents about the health risks of toxic exposure and how people can detoxify their bodies using natural remedies.

Jessica - Grand Isle

Jessica from Grand Isle described her trouble with health concerns that started in May of last year that continue to persist today.  She believes that she was exposed and continues to be exposed to toxins from the spill and cleanup efforts and that others on the island have been exposed as well.  According to Jessica, there have been appeals to the local and state government to set up clinics to test residents for chemical exposure, but those requests have not resulted in any movement toward providing care for the locals in Grand Isle.

Jessica is fired up though.  She attended the PowerShift rally in Washington DC the week before and was excited to connect with other youth that are passionate about moving toward alternative fuels that don’t carry the same risks to her home as petroleum and other fossil fuels.

Lori Coden AlabamaLori from Coden, Alabama also had health problems that couldn’t be explained away.  She went in search of a local doctor that would test her blood for chemical exposure related the spill, but had trouble finding a doctor that would even conduct the test. She was dismayed that despite the US Surgeon General, Regina Benjamin having a practice just a few miles from her house where she is a patient, Lori was unable to get the blood test she needed to determine if in fact her symptoms could be the result of toxic exposure.  She finally found a doctor 75 miles away that conducted the test, which came back positive for Ethylbenzene and Xylene in excess of the 95th percentile.

Brandon Sutton & LeoLeo Denton from Dauphin Island took Simone and I on a canoe trip over to Little Dauphin Island where he showed us unusual dark, crusty formations in the sand that he has never seen before in the 15 years he’s lived on the island. Amongst a backdrop of natural gas rigs that dotted the seascape, he described the spill’s negative impacts on his community, the fear of future accidents near their home. He went on to describe health troubles that some of his children have battled in the year since the spill. Similar to other locals we spoke with, Leo is not the type to run to the doctor for treatment for most symptoms, but instead tends to let things run their course.

The lack of consistent testing and treatment is problematic at best. Many of the people that are at risk have no insurance or access to faraway doctors who are experienced in chemical exposure.

This raises an important question – what is the true sum of impacts from this disaster? We may never know the answer to this question, but it’s certainly worth asking.

There is an entire population of people whose very existence depends on the health of the water and the creatures that live in it.  In the haste to proclaim the spill to be over, many important factors related to the health and safety of the water have been ignored or marginalized.  What will happen to these people as this saga continues to unfold?

A possible silver lining in all of this is that awareness of the impacts we have on the environment and each other have come to the surface.  Ann from Wolf Bay, Alabama described the rapid coming together that occurred in her community at the onset of the spill.  Locals in the Wolf Bay Watershed Watch initiative sprung to action quickly to protect their coastline and estuaries and didn’t wait for State of Federal action. Coastal residents such as Leo, Jessica, Lori and others are speaking out about people taking responsibility for their actions and questioning the wisdom of continuing to consume energy and other resources at current rates.

It seems clear that we still have a long way to go in truly restoring the Gulf coast to its condition before the spill, but the resilience of the people in these communities along with the resilience of nature will see this through, eventually.  Stories like the ones I heard on this trip continue to reinforce the severity of the situation along the coast, but also the opportunity to come together and learn from this tragic event.

What do you think about what’s going on on the coast now?  Does this story still bring up feelings or emotions in you?

Photos 1-4: Brandon Sutton

Photos 5-6: Simone Lipscomb



05 2011

Shrimping in Alabama

Today, we continued our work along the Alabama coast. This time, we spent much of the day in Bon Secour, where seafood shops seem to pop up around every bend in the road. Simone and I visited a couple of them to get a sense of what was happening with their businesses.

Two of the shops we visited seemed to be quite busy, with a steady flow of customers coming in for shrimp, crabs, crawfish, and other locally caught fish. There was a very positive, upbeat vibe and customers seemed to be feeling good about the quality and safety of the fish.

Driving along on our way to the Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge, we saw a sign for another shrimp stand and we decided to drive along the curvy county road to check out one more place before we left. ‘Joe the Shrimp Man’ was out on his boat supervising his son an other crewman rigging up the shrimp boat to go out into the bay.

Billy Nelson

We talked with the men for over an hour and got a true sense for what the independent fishermen were going through still. Joe is still waiting on compensation from money he lost last year when he had to dispose of an entire shrimp catch due to the oil spill. The frustrations mounted when he was told he would be reimbursed, yet the check never came.

Joe and his crew are not the type to wait around for somebody else to make things right. They do what they have to do to survive. However, survival for them is closely tied to people buying shrimp, which is a tough sell these days. He mentioned the widely reported success of the local tourism industry lately and the spring break crowds packing the hotels along the beach. But, he said, they aren’t eating seafood. They are here to party.

One thing is certain to me after talking with people for the past couple of days – the impact of the oil spill is still quite substantial along the coast. Despite what the paid-for-by-BP ads would have us believe, life along the coast is not ‘normal’ by any stretch of the imagination for many of the locals, fishermen in particular. Perhaps the tourism industry has rebounded, but the locals in the seafood industry have not been made whole.

We are on the way to Dauphin Island for a canoe trip out in the bay with another Alabama local. This is an area that we did not have a chance to visit last summer and we are looking forward to seeing and hearing more.

See Simone’s post on our experience on her blog.

More stories from the coast to come. Thanks for following.

Photo: Simone Lipscomb


04 2011

Oil Spill Impressions from the Alabama Bayou

Yesterday, Simone Lipscomb and I visited Coden, Alabama to reconnect with the community that was such a focal point of our efforts last Summer.  Lori Bosarge, a key individual in our film had set up a couple of interviews for us with affected members of the community.

The docks along Portersville Bay were a big part of the cleanup operations last Summer, and this area continues to be a point of focus for us today. Today, locals are down in the area fishing, playing in the sand, but also sharing stories of uncertainty and concern about the safety of the area. The spill is still fresh in their minds and they are willing to open up and tell their stories to whoever will listen.

Portersville Bay State Dock

We visited with Dale, who owns a shipyard on the bayou. When I asked Dale if people still talked about the oil spill, he immediately said yes, every day. Despite the perception that things are back to normal and everything is fine, people are still suffering in this small coastal community. The rising cost of fuel has put a tremendous strain on the customers that Dale relies on to stay in business.  One of the boats that he is getting ready to launch costs between $60,000 and $70,000 to fill up.  As fuel costs continue to rise, there is concern that his customers might not be able to build more boats.

Dale Coden Alabama

Minh Le, a local shrimper, described the impact on his ability to put people in the community to work. He operates 2 shrimp boats, and both have been docked since the oil spill began, with the exception of a couple of months of work during the Vessels Of Opportunity (VOO) program last Summer during the cleanup effort. He hopes to be able to take 1 of the boats out at the end of the month, but the economic realities of shrimping make it very difficult for him and his workers to make a living.  Between the price of fuel and the lack of trust in the safety of the seafood (which keeps prices lower than normal), there is tremendous uncertainty in the viability of his business.

Minh Le on Portersville Bay

However, in light of this disaster, there are rays of light shining through.  We talked last Summer about the resilience of these communities and the individuals that live in them, and there seems to be a real coming together now with people sharing information, stories, and support with each other. Lori, Dale, and Minh have come together through the South Bay Community Alliance, which is a community group that seeks to bring the local community together and help each other in the face of adversity.

Lori & Minh Le Portersville Bay

See a couple of clips from our interviews in Coden Alabama in the short video below.

Thank you for following along. More stories from the coast to come soon.

Photos: Simone Lipscomb


04 2011