After generations of independence, some Gulf Coasters asking for help

Miami HeraldJune 14, 2010 

DELACROIX, La. -- A month into the oil spill, Bernard Johnson sat in his living room in this Gulf Coast fishing village watching news of the crude's slow and deadly seep into the bays and bayous where he has made a living for nearly three decades.

He thought of his wife and 5-year-old daughter. And he made a decision.

For the first time in three generations of fishermen, a Johnson would accept outside help. Days later, his wife, a school bus driver in St. Bernard Parish, applied for food stamps. The first check -- about $260 -- arrived on a Monday, 41 days after the Gulf of Mexico rig explosion.

``My daddy raised four of us with no help. My daddy's daddy raised 13 with nothing but what he made on the water,'' said Johnson, 43, whose family settled near the bayou after moving from the Canary Islands. ``This is a first. I have never asked the government or anybody else for help in my life. I have never taken a handout. And it was hard for me to do, but we just don't know how this thing is going to turn out.''

For generations, fishermen have worked the rich waters of the Gulf, made a decent dollar, built houses and raised families, largely on their own. But the relentless leak -- simply called ``the monster'' in these parts -- is forcing traditionally self-sufficient communities to consider the idea of help.

Many have never accepted aid. Some reached out for help rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina but now must rely on the government, faith-based groups or BP payments. It's a new reality for Louisiana's fishing world and a possible sign of things to come in Florida and other Gulf states. Gulf fishermen harvest about 1 billion pounds of seafood each year.

``The culture is not to ask for help, it's very much about taking care of your own. Many are not used to asking for help or accepting help easily,'' says Natalie Jayroe, president and CEO of the Second Harvest Food Bank in New Orleans. ``But we also know that this oil spill has been traumatic. You are talking about fishermen who have just spent money getting their boats in order for the season, then all of a sudden their livelihoods are taken away.''

Almost 48,000 households in the 14 parishes most affected by the spill rely on income from the seafood industry and related businesses. So far, 1,591 residents have applied for emergency food stamps -- known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- at 14 mobile sites set up after the spill, according to the Louisiana Department of Social Services.

Second Harvest reports at least a 15 percent jump in new families requesting services. And more than 7,800 individuals have received emergency services from Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans since May 1, including $140,000 in gift cards and food vouchers, 177 cans of baby formula and 186 packs of diapers.

In part, the strong community response is linked to BP's uneven distribution of monthly claim checks -- criticized as covering only a fraction of fishermen's salaries or expenses -- and its limited hiring of local workers to help manage the cleanup.

Social service agencies and groups have reached deep into the coastal communities, setting up emergency centers and partnering with churches to offer aid ranging from food vouchers to cash for utilities. Early on, as weary shrimpers, crabbers, bait store owners, truck drivers -- most everyone with a hand in the industry -- trickled in, the task often shifted to convincing them there was nothing dishonorable about accepting help. The state social services department even began pushing its on-line application process, allowing people to apply for food stamps or other services in the privacy of their homes.

``Some of the people who have traditionally never used these services walk in and you can just see how uncomfortable they are,'' said Kristy H. Nichols, secretary of the state's social services department. ``They are dealing with the unknown and we have been trying to encourage them and tell them, if ever there was a time to do it, this is it.''

On Tuesday, 300 cars, SUVs and pickup trucks with boats and flatbeds still attached lined up along a highway well before a St. Bernard church's noon food giveaway.

Joe Cargo, 51, inched forward, but he was thinking about leaving.

``I almost left a couple times. I felt bad being here because I ain't used to anybody giving me anything or me asking nobody for nothing,'' said Cargo, with a mixture of hurt and anger. ``But I just kept thinking about my woman and my daughter and my son and my grandchildren.''

Cargo, who lives in nearby Meraux, four blocks from an oil refinery, hauls pallets of seafood from the bottom of St. Bernard Parish to Pass Christian in Mississippi. He hasn't worked since the first week of the spill. He filed a claim with BP, received a check for $1,000 that's long gone and now mows lawns and does odd jobs to pay the bills.

``I was proud that I could pay my bills, that nothing would get cut off,'' said Cargo, who estimates his monthly bills total nearly $1,800. ``But if the fishing folk don't make money, I don't make money.''

So he left the House of Refuge Church with eight bags bursting with yeast rolls, chicken marsala and teriyaki beef frozen meals, cinnamon rolls and a Honey Baked ham.

Six area churches partnered with Angel Food Ministries for the giveaway, bringing a tractor trailer with 36,000 pounds of food from Monroe, Ga., for local fishermen and their families.

``With so many people here whose lives hinge on seafood, there's a huge need for food since the oil spill. A lot of people live check to check and you have some who were still recovering from the recession and Hurricane Katrina,'' said Pastor Bryan Strickland of Cornerstone Church of God in Violet, La. ``We had people show up crying, some because they are deeply depressed but also because they were thankful.''

South of the food giveaway, the St. Bernard Highway turns into Louisiana Highway 300, just about the only way to get to Delacroix by car.

Locals call it Delacroix Island but it's really an unincorporated sliver with a single narrow road lined with marshes that peters out near the End of the World Marina.

Delacroix has no stop light, supermarket or gas station, which is the way residents like it. It's best known for great fishing, its Spanish heritage (some residents, called IsleƱos, still speak the language) and a reference in Bob Dylan's song Tangled Up in Blue.

At the first dock, Bernard Johnson works on his 36-foot shrimp boat preparing for what he believes might be the last day he fishes in the Gulf.

By sunset, he is on his third pack of Marlboros and trawling for shrimp along his beloved Barataria buff, the waters he used to swim in as a boy, that bleed into Black Bay and later the Gulf.

But the water is too cold and the moon -- which he says draws the plump brown shrimp closer to the surface -- is still a few days away so he heads back to the dock.

``This is a hard way to make a living. I preached and pushed my son away from becoming a fisherman,'' says Johnson, who has three children and quit school at 15 to fish for a living. ``Now he works in air conditioning and makes a good salary.''

Johnson lost more than a month of crabbing and the shrimping season remains uncertain. The waters opened a week ago, but with pools of oil spotted nearby over the weekend, it is likely to be shut down soon.

Still, he feels blessed, having worked eight days for BP lowering booms. That's more than $8,000 -- but a good June shrimp harvest can yield $60,000 or more.

``I am still better off than a lot of people,'' he says. ``But I went ahead and got the food stamps because who knows?''

Further southwest in Grand Isle, where the houses, many on stilts, are named like boats -- Dreams Come True, Hard Labor, Serendipity -- a mock cemetery has sprung up along the main drag. It has 101 white crosses bearing the names of losses in the summer of oil: oysters, blackfin tuna, playing volleyball, speckled trout, bonfires.

The 20,000 vacationers who typically take over the island community have been replaced by clean-up workers. Fishing and sunning along the pristine beaches -- now coated with crude -- have given way to the occasional BP press conference at the community center. President Barack Obama has visited twice, making the Grand Isle a dateline for a way of life devastated by the largest environmental catastrophe in U.S. history.

At the bottom of the bridge, captain Mike Frazier, 52, and his wife live in a house atop 17-foot stilts, rebuilt after Katrina. It is the midafternoon and Frazier is home watching the news. He comes from a long line of shrimpers, including his father who raised eight children on seafood earnings. Frazier got his $5,000 BP claim check three weeks ago, about the same time his $4,600 property insurance bill came due.

Last month, Frazier brought home an application for food stamps. He couldn't bring himself to fill it out.

``I don't want no charity,'' he said. ``Just let me work.''

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