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


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05 2011