The Other Side of the Berm

For such a small town, Grand Isle, LA has certainly been getting a lot of attention over the past few weeks. Overall, I think the mainstream media has done a decent job of covering the situation here. But, just as news clips cut quickly from a local restaurant owner to an oil-covered pelican, the dichotomy between these two scenes of Grand Isle is very real. In my visits to the island over the past month, I am beginning to feel as though there are essentially two Grand Isles operating independently of one another: the local businesses and residents (fishing-related industries excluded) are trying desperately to go about their daily lives in spite of the oil on the beaches; and the Coast Guard and contractors involved in the clean-up operations are going about their jobs as if Grand Isle was essentially uninhabited. An unknowing visitor could stand on the street-side of the dune separating the beach from the town and not even know that a clean-up operation was underway. Similarly, workers can be bussed in and spend all day working on Grand Isle’s beach without even encountering a single local resident. Even if they did, they wouldn’t make for good company because they aren’t allowed to talk…. Maybe this sort of separation improves clean-up efficiency, or maybe it allows anxious residents to ignore the problem. But, for lack of a better word, it’s just plain weird.

On this week’s community outreach trip to Grand Isle, Jaclyn Piccin and I set out to interview some of the island’s residents who we hoped could help us breach the divide between what’s happening on the beach and in the water and what’s happening on the other side of the berm, so to speak.

We started our day with a visit to Blanchard’s Seafood. Dean Blanchard owns one of the largest seafood businesses in Southern Louisiana, and has made a reputation for himself during the current crisis as one of the island’s most outspoken critics of BP. The docks at Blanchard’s Seafood were noticeably empty. The scales, normally overflowing with the day’s shrimp catch, hung lethargically. Hand-made posters criticizing BP lined the outside walls. Blanchard himself is appropriately pissed off. In his office (adorned in purple and gold with all things LSU), Dean let loose about the lack of transparency in the clean-up operation, the anxiety the crisis has generated in the community and his fear of losing everything he and the Grand Isle fishing community have built and rebuilt over the past decades. Between puffs on his cigarette, he described the threat that the oil leak and toxic dispersant use poses to the seafood industry and its shrinking knowledge base, historically passed from one generation to the next. It is hard to conceive how the industry will survive such a prolonged and widespread attack, he fears.

We ate lunch at the local Subway restaurant, where we had met owner Cherish Brelsford last week. Brelsford, who has family members working for the USCG, first notified the press when she found oily hazmat suits in her dumpster after the first round of clean-up operations. However, since then, she had been instructed to stop talking to the media or any other inquiring organizations. In the interest of supporting her business, (and the fact that the restaurant has very cold A/C and Barq’s in the soda fountain) Subway has remained an important stop on our outreach trips. There, we also bumped into a pair of businessmen from California (which we had met at the same spot the previous week, incidentally). These guys are hawking a bioengineered, non-toxic, 100% biodegradable oil dispersant product that works by activating water-borne microflora. Armed with a visually impressive video of the stuff in action, they have succeeded in working their way up through the BP bureaucracy to the point of becomming eligible for product field trials–a feat that I understand only about 14 out of hundreds of thousands of products can boast so far. It all sounds pretty good… I wish them luck.

After lunch, we headed down to Grand Isle State Park to take aerial photographs for a project we are working on with grassrootsmapping.org. By attaching a camera to a kite and setting it to take a picture every 20 seconds, we are able to generate high-quality aerial images that can then be geocoded and mapped. Today, we were being joined by a team of journalists from CBS. This was the fourth time I have visited the state park in the past month, but the clean-up operations there have really intensified since my last visit. The parking lot was full and a large tent had been set up to accommodate the clean-up crews, who were taking a water break in the shade of the pier and lookout tower. Today, the park and pier remained open to the public, but globs of thick, brown oil littered the beach. There was also a strange smell in the air, not unlike a heavy duty bathroom disinfectant, and I found myself not wanting to hang out there very long when I was struck by a dull headache.

After snapping some quick aerial photos, Jaclyn and I headed up to the Bridge Side Marina at the other end of the island to interview some charter boat captains. Private boats are still leaving out of this marina, but business has plummeted dramatically. Instead of chartering fishing trips, boat captains these days are ferrying media out to the oil-ridden beaches of Isle Grand Terre and marshes of Barataria Bay, and doing their part to publicize the severity of the crisis. Other boat captains have opted to enroll their boats in BP’s euphemistically named “Vessels of Opportunity” program, such as a captain we spoke with. After working for years in the corporate world, he said he is fortunate to have finally found a way to make $100,000 a year doing something he loves. If BP’s negligence ultimately makes his chosen lifestyle impossible, he says it will take much more than Vessels of Opportunity to make up for the losses.

Next on the agenda was a meeting with Town Councilwoman Leoda Bladsacker, a life-long resident of the island. I first encountered Leoda last week at a community meeting hosted by Bayou Inter-faith Shared Community Organizing at the Grand Isle First Baptist Church. Upon meeting her, I was immediately struck by her sense of ownership in the community and her determination to hold the responsible parties accountable for this disaster. She was specifically concerned about the availability of college scholarships for the five high school seniors graduating from Grand Isle School this year. Scholarships are typically provided by money raised at the island’s various fishing rodeos. July’s Tarpon Rodeo has already been cancelled.

Today, Leoda wanted to show us a part of the island that we would otherwise likely never see. North of Hwy 1 and the vacation camps, the thick oak canopy of the island’s interior hides a number of historic homes. Dating back to the early 1800s, many of these structures have survived numerous hurricanes. Here, the residents rarely lock their doors and the kids ride around all day on bikes and golf carts. There are vibrant kitchen gardens, lawn ornaments, and I even saw a small horse stable. It struck me that many of the residents in these neighborhoods might not have access to crucial information about the environmental and health impacts of the spill. Leoda continued to take us on a ride down the beach, where we saw clean-up operations in progress. She told us that the Coast Guard is preparing to build a wall on the beach to prevent curious onlookers (such as ourselves) from seeing the oil washing up there.

Despite their varying perspectives, the overall picture painted by the residents of Grand Isle in our interviews is consistent: they are angry, skeptical and tired. Irrespective of their prominence and stature in the community, they feel that they are being misinformed and treated as though they are inconsequential. BP and government authorities insist that it is safe to live on Grand Isle. But, how are Grand Isle residents supposed to feel safe when oil is washing up on their beach every day and the future of their businesses, their environment and their entire way of life is in jeopardy?

Jaclyn and I are going to work on compiling footage from our interviews into a short documentary over the next week. When it is completed, we will post it here on the LABB blog site–stay tuned!

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6 Responses to The Other Side of the Berm

  1. Thanks for the up-close view of what’s going on down there. Your report cuts through the hype and overexposure that surrounds this mess.
    I’d like to hear more about two things you mentioned:
    1.) the “bioengineered, non-toxic, 100% biodegradable oil dispersant product that works by activating water-borne microflora,” which is being advocated by the California guys. What about this stuff? Does it work?
    2.) why locals are not talking much–are they under some gag order, or burnt out, or just fed up with the whole mess? Who is “not allow(ing) them to talk?
    Thanks for the update. I’ll be posting a link to this article to a few of my blogs.

  2. Pingback: down and dirty in Louisiana, an upclose report from Grand Isle « CareyRowland's Blog

  3. Lauren Craig says:

    Thanks for the kind words! As far as the non-toxic dispersant goes, all I know is that it’s called Excell & it’s in the field trial stages. It is under multiple patents and its formula is proprietary. I can’t find any information about it on the internet. There are all kinds of alternative solutions being presented, and it’s hard to distinguish snake-oil from the real thing. But, I think we should keep an eye out for this stuff because it looked & sounded pretty good!
    As far as your second question, I don’t know the answer. I’m sure it’s a combination of factors. People who have signed on with BP do not want to talk for fear of losing their new jobs. People who have family members working for BP or the Coast Guard obviously want to keep peace in their family. But, the vast majority of local people are happy to talk about it, as long as they understand your motives are not political. They are not interested in talking to people who may exploit their situation to support a ban on off-shore drilling.

  4. Lauren,
    I am glad to hear that “the vast majority”of the local people are happy to talk about it.
    I hope that you and others can provide some real support for them–not only with cleanup, but in whatever ways are appropriate.
    Please accept my apology if I misidentified the writer of “the other side of the berm.” I hope you and Anne would consider it an amusing mistake, and a compliment to both of you, that I would do that.
    I spent my teen years in Baton Rouge, growing up only three blocks from the Exxon refinery, before moving to north Stadium, LSU, and graduating in 1973.
    My dad used to take me fishing in the Atchafalaya. We also made a trip to Grand Isle once.

    Thanks for the report, and for all the Bucket Brigade is doing to cleanup, and to help responsible people/agencies make informed decisions. Keep up the good work.
    I hope these precious resources are preserved for future fisherman, and for the wildlife of the swamps and the gulf.
    Tell the people not to give up.

  5. Lauren Craig says:

    I found the website for the biodegradable dispersant I was writing about:
    http://www.abiocat.com/

  6. careyrowland says:

    Thank you, Lauren. Please keep us posted re any positive effects you see or hear about from this or any other such product.

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