From One Disaster to the Next

Guest blog post by Stephen Billings, Patagonia employee and LABB volunteer who worked in St. Bernard Parish.

I woke and CCR’s “Born on the Bayou” was playing in my head. As far as omens go, I figured this was a good one for someone on his first trip to Louisiana’s gulf coast. A week earlier, I had wondered if there would be any work left to do in the wake of the oil spill. If you watch the news or read the paper, then you probably don’t hear much about the spill or its residual effects on the local population. All I really knew is that the gushing had stopped, the well filled and the oil spill that captivated all of us for a summer seemed to be over. But, there is still much more work to do.  I had flown to Louisiana to work with other Patagonia volunteers to collect health and community data in the areas affected by the spill. My first day going door-to-door taking surveys would be the first of several unforgettable days here.

After a brief orientation, our team took to the streets. Four of us split up and worked in Delacroix, a small fishing community in St. Bernard Parish.  At the end of the day, we came to our last house, where two men were working outside. They seemed tough, hard working, and I have to admit I was a bit intimidated. Nevertheless, we introduced ourselves.  At first they were skeptical of us, but soon the conversation turned to tattoos, which we all had, and a connection was made. These men were crab fishermen, but neither had been able to fish since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion on April 20th. This is common with most of the fishermen we surveyed. Some of the fishermen have begun working for BP on oil relief crews. Others, like the two we met on our first day, just want to get back to the way of life they have loved for so many generations.

Right now, the area fishermen are worried about is when they will be fishing again. There are several concerns they have with fishing and the most obvious is the oil in the water. The general belief is the oil has sunk to the Gulf floor, decimating the habitat for oysters, crab and shrimp. As we continued to talk to other fishermen and locals, we heard stories of crabs pulled out of traps covered in oil, massive amounts of dead fish found outside of Plaquemines Parish and contaminated shrimp. Another even bigger concern is that even if the sea life isn’t directly affected by the oil, the use of dispersants may have long term impact on marine and human populations. These two fishermen, like so many others, are worried about the possibility of someone getting sick from a fish they caught.

Even so, I could tell the lack of fishing was driving these two crazy. The elder spoke with what I can only describe as a southern Louisiana Cajun accent which meant the younger man would occasionally act as interpreter. As we spoke with them and filled out the health survey, they continually offered us food and drink. Finally, they insisted we try crab cakes made by the elder fisherman using pre-spill crab and shrimp. They were amazing. Soon the other two from our team walked up. More drinks and crab cakes were brought down from the house that stood on posts 20 feet off the ground.

They also showed us their photo album of Katrina’s aftermath in the area. Almost everyone we spoke with wanted to talk about Katrina. Prior to coming down here, I assumed the damage had been cleaned up and the communities affected had moved on. But this is not the case. Everywhere we went, from New Orleans to the Bayou, there were incredible reminders of the damage done by the hurricane. Houses abandoned and boarded up, empty lots where houses once stood now vacant and everyone you meet has a story about their house and their town. These communities have not fully healed from that disaster and are now dealing with the effects of the oil spill. As I looked through the photo album I was shocked that most of the town I was working in all that day was practically wiped away only five years earlier. It has since been mostly rebuilt as it had been after hurricanes and storms long before Katrina.

Just as I finished the photo album, the rest of our team piled up in the van to join our conversation and what began as a simple survey turned into the main event of the evening. Our hosts didn’t mind, in fact they loved it. They showed us all the kindness and hospitality this area is famous for. In spite of all they have gone through and are going through, they were happy to share their time with us. One of the fishermen asked if we wanted a ride on the boat so we could go look for alligators and watch the sunset on the bayou, so we all piled into two boats and away we went. As we flew over the water listening to classic rock, the song from this morning popped back into my head. As incredible as that moment on the boat was, I couldn’t help feeling for these two fishermen and everyone in this area being affected by the spill.

One of the questions we asked in the survey was if the respondents had considered moving due to the spill. When I asked the elder fisherman this question, he looked surprised and said, “Hell no!”  But why would he say any different?  These two are part of generations of fishermen in this area. They were taught by their parents, who were taught by their parents and so on. Over the years they have lived through several devastating hurricanes and storms that wrecked or destroyed their homes. Time and time again, they rebuilt their homes and their lives. Through it all they were able to fish the waters. They could depend on the natural world for food and money. But now their livelihoods are in jeopardy. At Patagonia, we often refer to a quote by David Brower, “There is no business to be done on a dead planet.” At this moment, there is no clearer picture of this than in the regions damaged as a result of the spill. Most of the men and women we encountered have worked incredibly hard to make a life here. This kind of rugged individualism is deeply rooted in the American psyche. But the reality is, if the remaining oil isn’t cleaned up, habitats aren’t restored and independent testing isn’t done on the use of dispersants, this way of life may begin to disappear.

In a phone conversation, my wife back in Colorado asked me if I felt hopeless in all of this. My answer is no, I don’t. I look at the hard working staff and volunteers at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and other organizations, I read about the public outcry in the wake of this disaster and know if people realize what is happening here, they will respond and things can change. The main threat to this hope is the lack of education, awareness and coverage in the news. Now the well has been closed, when was the last time you heard anything about the Gulf? The same thing happened here with Katrina. The elder fisherman shared his concern that now that the oil isn’t floating on top of the water, it will be out of sight and out of mind. Then he handed me his phone number and said in his Cajun accent, “I want you to call and check in on me.” I told him I would. I plan on staying in touch and perhaps I will bring my family here to go out on the boat and help pull crab traps. It would be amazing for them to take part in this way of life. I only hope we have the chance.

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