By Jay Colingham MPH, LABB Research Associate
Communications have shut down in Assumption Parish. Agency officials are collecting information, complaints, and names, but not releasing this resource to the public. Many citizens and residents are frustrated by the lack of transparency and not receiving responses to their questions and concerns from the previous two community meetings and their endless phone calls. Recently, they were told that the evacuation will last into 2013 or later. The phrase repeated over and over again is “all we want is an update”.
Last Thursday, I attended a community meeting in Pierre Part, LA and listened to a group of people displaced by sinkholes in Grand Bayou and Bayou Corne. The group self-convened to discuss their questions, needs, concerns, and organize a preliminary game plan for their efforts moving forward. With roughly 100 residents and visitors attending, there was a very respectful tone focusing on listening and providing affirmation for those who needed to speak. The group was made up of locals, a few family members from out of town who have come to help, some local community organizers, media, two representatives from Louisiana State University, and some parish police officers.
Half way through the meeting, a representative from the Department of Natural Resources and a parish representative showed up. While the reaction was mixed by the assembled group, the general feeling was that the Department of Natural Resources and the Parish was doing a bare minimum. People expressed fear, frustration, hopelessness, and hope. While many more agencies and politicians had been invited to listen and observe the meeting, most did not respond, others refused, and some actually took action to notify the public that the meeting was not condoned by the Parish, State, officials, or any elected group and that attendance would be in some way unproductive. Many attendees claimed to have received calls to this effect and angrily accused the Parish of mal-intent. Despite all of the negativity, the general feeling was positive and provided relief and hope for the people of Pierre Part and Bayou Corne.
The questions from the residents included interest in indoor and outdoor air monitoring, the tremors, smell of diesel and crude oil, property values, natural gas bubbling, public safety, and why no hydrogen sulfide was measured. From these questions comes a request for an answer and an update. The community action plan slowly developed in the back ground as the LSU facilitator wrote down the points that every speaker made.
I want to include some noteworthy messages that community members told me and I observed. Parish property assessors have been approaching residents in the area and offering steep discounts in property taxes in exchange for a decrease in property value assessment. Some real estate assessors also joined the meeting and offered their services to assess property values. Most viewed these people as predatory and some feel like the parish is trying to hurt them and their chances for a fair return on the value of their property, should some civil lawsuit arise. Another major issue is the fact that the public officials and agencies did not address questions from the first meeting in the second meeting. Personal attempts to gather and request this information has been ignored and the DNR representative state that it would likely cost money as a public records request. Another major issue was the absence of the parish president who was seen minutes before the meeting at a bar in Pierre Part. His absence shows the dramatic lack of support that community members are receiving from their parish. There were many more points that individuals brought up to me but for the sake of organization, they were mostly rooted in the problems tied to one of the three issues I mentioned.
In response to the community meeting, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade is very interested in working with the people of Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou in reaching their goals of getting answers. As with every partnership, first steps need to be taken. We hope to be invited to the follow-up community meeting where the draft action plan is presented. Our thoughts are with the displaced and those who have chosen not to evacuate.