Guest blog post by Naomi Helbling, Patagonia Volunteer, Port Sulphur, August 1-7, 2010
I have felt firsthand the warmth and welcome of southern hospitality. I can’t get it off of my mind. Literally, I spent my first day back at work staring off into the distance thinking about my trip or trying to hold back the tears because I miss everyone that I’ve shared this experience with and everyone that I had the pleasure of meeting along the way. Sure, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m an emotional person but this has truly been a life changing experience. I’ve spent the last week in lower Plaquemines Parish sharing stories and laughter with some of the friendliest, warmest individuals that I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I don’t know what the towns of Port Sulphur, Happy Jack, Empire, or Venice looked like before Katrina. I’ve never even been to Louisiana. But the stories that I took away from this trip have helped me to construct a vision of what these communities were before Katrina, how the residents returned to their homes to regroup and rebuild after the storm, and now, how devastating the effects of the BP oil spill have been on their communities.
Patagonia chose 70 individuals out of the 250 that applied to go to the Gulf Coast to volunteer with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB). We would go to different areas of coastal Louisiana in 7 groups, consisting of 10 individuals from different areas of the country. We really didn’t know what we were actually applying to do. I won’t lie. I knew that we would travel and I really wanted to go somewhere. The impacts of this trip have changed my life. If you’re not familiar with the LABB, it’s a non profit environmental health and justice organization working with communities that neighbor the state’s oil refineries and chemical plants. Through a simple EPA approved plastic “bucket” the LABB trains members of the community on how to take air samples. This empowers the community to monitor and expose industrial pollution as it happens. The LABB has been a beneficiary of the Patagonia Environmental Grants program for many years. I wanted to help because this is the biggest environmental catastrophe I have ever witnessed. That is really the only way I thought about it. For me, as with the majority of the world, this was environmental catastrophe. You think about the oily birds. You think about oily beaches. I didn’t think about each and every individual person that is feeling the impact of this devastating event right in their backyard. When I got on the plane for New Orleans, the only thing I was sure of was that we would be working as outreach crews, administering surveys around the Parish. I’ve never done anything like this before and the feeling is indescribable, as you walk down a long, exposed driveway to the door of a complete stranger, to ask, “Good morning, how has your family’s health & livelihood been impacted by the world’s largest oil spill?”.
What I discovered is that the future is like a big black abyss for these residents. Over and over people expressed the same sentiment. After Katrina, they knew what to do. They had to clean up, rebuild, and keep fishing. After the oil spill, there are no answers. They can’t fish. If possible they’re working for BP to help assist in the clean up but no jobs are guaranteed and the money that is promised is not always delivered. To make matters even worse, the moratorium on off-shore drilling has drastically reduced the only other work that many of the residents could fall back on. What’s next? When will things be cleaned up and back to normal again? One man, who I watched head out every day to work on the oil clean up, said to me, “We’re just waiting for BP to make us whole again.” Before I went on this trip, I read every article I could get my hands on about the oil spill. I actually believed a lot of what I read. What amazes me is the contradiction between what the world is reading and what is actually happening in the communities directly impacted. These citizens want to stand up and fight for their livelihoods but the government agencies that are in charge of the clean up are not listening and they’re definitely not sharing all of the information that they know.
Our week was spent in lower Plaquemines Parish, about 2 hours south of New Orleans. On our way down Highway 23 we passed oil refineries and decimated patches of cypress trees as the land shrunk away and water crept in around us on both sides. There were two very obvious factors that dominated life down here: fishing and oil. Boats and fishing nets dotted most properties along the highway. We arrived at the Delta Marina in Empire, Louisiana around 3pm, before any of the boats had returned from their day of work in the Gulf. Each day was subsequently spent trying to gather information from anyone who was willing to share with us how their lives have been impacted. Our surveys focused first on the health of residents in the area and second on the how their livelihoods have been impacted by this catastrophe. The individuals who were kind enough to share their stories with me will remain a part of me forever. They are passionate, welcoming, proud, and have some of the most positive attitudes I have ever seen. I’m writing this all down and sharing it with you to make sure that their stories are heard. Their communities cannot be forgotten just because the news stations tell us that 75% of the oil is gone and things are almost wrapped up down there. The enormity of their situation is not being shared in a truthful manner and I cannot sit back and let it happen.
Jeff Poston, who’s in charge of payroll and works in Patagonia’s corporate offices in Ventura, and I were partners for the week. He’s over 6 ft tall, shaved head, and a devout Raiders fan from the east bay. I’m just over 5 ft, short pixie haircut, big dimples, and live up in the quiet & reserved pacific northwest. Just imagine for yourself what your first impression would be when you pulled back your curtains the slightest bit to see who’s knocking on your door at 10am. I’m sure we garnered attention as the sweat dripped down our faces and we wildly swatted around our faces to try to keep the deer flies from flying into our noses, eyes, and ears. Even for people that have lived in Louisiana their whole lives…it was hot. With every knock, we hoped that someone would open their door at least wide enough so that we could feel a cool blast from their air conditioning. At the very least, we hoped to be turned down in a polite manner. More often than not, southern hospitality would prevail and we would get to hear some of the most interesting stories imaginable. Sometimes they had nothing to do with oil or fishing. Sometimes, it was hard to hold back your tears and other times we were all laughing together and I wished we could stay for dinner. I can honestly say that I made a lot of friends in Louisiana. It took me a long time to say goodbye to them before we left the Delta Marina on our last day.
One couple in particular really stood out to me. Paul and Sonia invited us into their home before they even knew why we were standing on their porch. Only after offering us ice water, paper towels to mop our sweaty faces, and a cool seat in their air conditioned living room to sit on, did they wonder what we were doing. Sonia works part-time for half the year doing mosquito control for Plaquemines Parish and Paul is a shrimp boat captain. Since trawling for shrimp has not been an option this summer, Paul turned to the only other option he had. He made the necessary changes to his boat to go work for BP to assist in surveying and cleaning up the oil in the gulf. Only he never heard back from BP. Luckily, their number has been drawn almost every week at the lottery held by the catholic relief services in Port Sulphur. This provides the basic necessities that they need to get by but nothing can make up for the loss of an entire season of fishing. To make matters even worse, on this particular day, they had to give up their 2 yr old german shepherd because he keeps jumping over the fence and he’s getting too expensive to keep. But, Paul says, “who knows….maybe BP will call back next week about some work…”
They remain optimistic about what lies ahead tomorrow but the long term impacts on the fishing community are harder to put a positive spin on. Yes, this community loves to fish. Yes, for many, its the only way of life that they know. But nobody wants to fish just for the sake of fishing. These men and women do not want to catch and sell shrimp that will negatively impact anyone’s health. This is the food that they feed their own children. They don’t want to catch shrimp that no one will buy. How do we know it’s safe to eat? The short and long term health effects of this catastrophe are completely unknown. One gentleman, a truck driver for an oil company, asked us to please bring to somebody’s attention the occurrence of normally occurring radioactive materials (NORM). Has anyone posed the risk of the risk of NORM to the fisherman who are going out to the gGulf everyday to clean up their waters? How do we test the seafood for the millions of gallons of oil and dispersants that have entered the Gulf’s waters? These questions were asked to the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Ray Mabus, as well as representatives from many government agencies, including the EPA, NOAA, and the Coast Guard at a town hall meeting in Buras, Louisiana. They didn’t have any answers. The people who had voices, answers, and ideas were the citizens of Plaquemines Parish.
I’m sharing this information with you because I hope that you feel as passionate and enraged by the reality of the situation in the gulf and the lack of truthful information that is being shared. Everywhere I look I see headlines that totally contradict the facts I have witnessed with my own eyes. As stated in a message from one of my travel companions, Keala…”this is why I am sharing my experience with you. I hope that you too are outraged by the reality and are inspired to do whatever you can to assist. I know I often get overwhelmed with the enormity of situations such as this oil spill and I don’t even know where to start. Don’t worry, there are always baby step options too. Just educating ourselves on the BP oil spill can help us to make smarter choices for ourselves and our families. Another option is choosing to help reduce our country’s dependence on crude oil by making educated decisions about our way of life. By simply being aware of the items that we choose to purchase or consume we can reduce the demand of petroleum based products. We can cut back on our driving by taking public transportation, biking, or walking once in a while. We can voice our concern about the clean up and accountability of the BP oil spill to our state and federal representatives. Yes, one voice matters 🙂 And if you want to get personally involved either physically or financially, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, The National Audubon Society, The Sierra Club, The United Way, Mote Marine Laboratory, and many other Environmental and Humanitarian groups are doing on the ground work with the BP oil spill. All of the organizations have a volunteer coordinator and would be thrilled to have your involvement.”
I have so many stories that can be passed along. We can’t forget the communities of the gulf coast just because it is no longer breaking news. Thanks for letting me share with you! Feel free to forward on to anyone that you think may be interested and if you have any questions or want to hear more, please feel free to ask me.
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