Blog post by Denise Schutte, Patagonia employee and LABB volunteer. Denise worked in Cocodrie and Chauvin doing impact surveying during the last full week of August.
My goal going into the week of volunteering with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade was to have no assumptions as to what was going on with the B.P. Oil disaster. To be a clean slate, an open canvas, a respectful visitor. I’ve been to Louisiana twice before. First, on vacation before Hurricane Katrina and once after the hurricane, volunteering with the Red Cross working at a shelter in Baker. I’ve had both the indulging party scene on Bourbon St. (with the plastic Hurricane airplane friendly glass to prove it) and the scarcity of only two restaurants open for business due to water contamination and entire city devastation. Both extremes of each other, leaving me curious as to what the third visit would encompass.
Being the 4th group to work with the Brigade from Patagonia, I’ve heard stories ranging from sleeping in beach cottages to sleeping in cramped FEMA trailers. I expected the worse in preparation but was happily wrong. Upon our first day in Louisiana I was welcomed with the humidity I love so much. To me it felt like an old favorite sweater…in the middle of a hot summer evening. I was also severely impressed with the group I traveled with. Our team was composed of Patagonia employees from New York, Seattle, Reno and Ventura. That being said, poor Nicholas was the only man and handled himself well. I knew we would be all right after we were caught in a downpour on our way to our first meal together. We were freezing, laughing and not a single complaint. This is the kind of team I like to work with.
The following day composed of training with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. Here we learned the details of the big picture that we were helping create. The goal was two handed forming a partnership with the LBB and community. On one hand we were to go into the Terrebonne Parish community and collect surveys to learn of specific, individual concerns with health and air quality. We were able to inform the community of the LBB and offer the individuals a ‘Bucket’, which tested their air quality by a 3rd party. This could explain to a family the specific air quality concerns that may affect the family’s health and well being. On the other hand, the bigger picture consisted of building a map that served as a transparent tool to visualize the accountability and effectiveness of the oil spill response and clean up. I could hardly wait to begin.
I was a bit disappointed my first day of surveying with Christina Allen. I thought we would be survey soldiers ready to walk miles and write our pens dry of ink. To my surprise, we had to knock on exactly 50 doors before we were able to obtain a survey. Cocodrie, LA typically consist of fisherman, both local and tourist. We discovered that the town now consists of B.P. clean up crews and empty homes. With the fish dying, contaminated waters and lung burning air, the town lost its appeal to the fisherman and was predominately deserted except for the Cocodrie business owners. This being said, we started surveying the businesses more then the empty homes.
Besides the empty homes, I could finally see with my own eyes the effects of the spill. Christina and I were surveying a local marina and met a group of fisherman and the Marina owners. The business lost 90% of the fishing excursion revenue and the only money to be made was off of the B.P. workers shopping at the marina and staying at its hotel. We heard of testimonies of skin rashes, nose bleeds, and nausea lasting over a month. We also heard of concerns with the B.P. clean up crew being composed of ex-cons, and B.P. not allowing the local fisherman to work on their crew because they ‘knew to much’. An increase in vandalism and a fear of personal safety was also at the height of concerns with the residents. We were shown a jar of oil that had been collected in a ‘safe’ fishing area and told stories of birds falling dead out of the sky. None of this was normal to the men that grew up and lived their entire lives on this finger of land jetting into the Gulf of Mexico. One of the marina owners, extended an invite to take us by boat to the Barrier Islands. This is where the birds feed that he saw falling dead out of the sky. Little did I know this would be the most eye-opening boat ride I’ve ever experienced.
With perfect timing as we were leaving the dock the following day, the song ‘Come Sail Away’ came on the radio. I couldn’t help but enjoy the possibly contaminated air I was breathing on the certainly contaminated water we were boating on. We made our way through the ‘Production’, huge industrial platforms that used deep natural gasses to push the oil along beneath the earth’s surface to the oil rigs. I had never seen such and industrial body of water, yet this ‘production’ was normal for the Gulf and also employed the majority of the community. We weren’t able to find any crude oil at the first island we stopped at but we did find bags full of trash left from the B.P. clean up crew. We went off to the second Barrier Island where our new friend from Cocodrie had previously found the oil 5 inches beneath the sand that was used as a cover up. Once we set foot onto the sand, we discovered tar balls, dead fish and dead birds…along with a little more trash. Tar balls aren’t as innocent as the sound; they are smears of oil along the sand that were at least 2 or 3 feet wide. Christina Speed couldn’t help but dissect the Black Drum fish scattered along the shore line. She found oil in their stomachs and throughout their body. This makes sense because the Black Drum fish are bottom feeders, meaning they were literally eating the oil and swimming through it. This may also be why we weren’t able to spot hardly and Red Fish, since they feed off the Black Drums. Again, this was all in what was considered a safe fishing zone. According to some of the locals, the fish are smart enough to swim around the oil plumes underwater, I guess they were wrong.
The following day we surveyed in Chauvin. Here we had better luck with the surveys, meeting individuals and hearing the stories of the community. We got a wide range of surveys ranging from extreme health problems to other individuals feeling like the community was greedy and wanted a monetary hand out from B.P. Either way, the people were friendly and more then willing to invite us into their homes, let us meet their children and their tiny little dogs. After the long, hot day of surveying was over we feasted at our favorite Cocodrie Marina, compliments of the owners. This is where, pre- oil disaster they would ‘fish all day and tell lies all night’. Perma-smiles were in full effect, along with dancing, laughing, full bellies and mosquitoes that even scared the fisherman to eating inside the marina….and piercings.
As our trip started to wind down I believed we truly came to appreciate each other, and the local community of Terrebonne Parish. Riding high in our 15 passenger van from the Southern hospitality and our inside jokes, the reflection phase finally started to settle in. I started to realize what it really means to show people who you are by your actions. I witnessed first hand how corrupt the media is in claiming that this problem is close to being corrected, and all I could think is how it was being swept under the rug while Lindsey Lohan and Paris Hiltons drug issues took precedence over our televisions and newspapers. I saw that money can partially sway a community to believe that a disaster of this magnitude is a good thing, that it is bringing work into the community.