The oil spill colors the fabric of Gulf coastal life

McClatchy NewspapersJune 20, 2010 

ALONG THE GULF COAST — Lisa Harbin shuts off the air conditioners at a Coden, Ala., bait-and-tackle shop to save money, worried about staying in business, fishing now but a memory. The live bait well has been drained and she's not sold a single ticket to the Mystic Striper Society Fishing Rodeo.

On Grand Isle, La., college students working a pelican emergency room don't have time to think about the fate of the oiled birds they've triaged before a crate harboring another shivering, oiled avian arrives.

And in Waveland, Miss., Nadine Brown frets about a falloff in tourists at the bar she rebuilt with more than just a little grit after Hurricane Katrina washed it away, along with most of the waterfront city's downtown.

For many in the weathered fishing villages and tiny towns along the Gulf of Mexico, the unrelenting eight-week siege of oil is taking a toll on the psyche. A drive along the coast from Louisiana to Florida finds towns still littered with hurricane debris, families struggling to recover and a mounting worry that oil will finish off what Katrina did not.

In Bayou La Batre _ the "Seafood Capital of Alabama'' — Kenny Dang, 32, fears for his parents. "All they've ever known is shrimping,'' he said, coming in from a day aboard the family vessel — this time spotting for oil off Alabama's coast.

In Pensacola, where enjoying the water defines life, marina owners like John and Anita Naybor — who had to rebuild a marina, and their home, after Hurricane Ivan — grimly consider the future.

Miles away from the coast, in New Orleans, artists in anguish over the thick crude washing ashore have created a haunting portrayal of the Gulf's fragile beauty, hanging works in a downtown art gallery that illustrate its ties to the fishing communities and dependence on the oil industry.

Fishermen find themselves in limbo, unable to make decisions about their future while the gusher continues to flow. Diners in the French Quarter ask about the provenance of their seafood. A bar offers $1 shots of "BP blood … Save the Coast, Have a Shot!'' and Save NOLA, a shop that benefits local nonprofits, is selling new T-shirts depicting with oiled pelicans that say "I want my life back too!'' — a play on BP CEO Tony Hayward's lament.

Everywhere, the spill dominates.

"I find myself dreaming of waves of brown oil,'' said Kim Cheek, 47, a social worker and musical director at Christ Episcopal Church in Bay St. Louis, Miss. But for a bell tower, the church was wiped away by Katrina. Parishioners worshipped in the parking lot, under a funeral home tent and in a donated Quonset hut before opening a glorious new structure just three weeks ago.

Nearby, yards from the church's front door, work crews patrol the beach for oily invaders, a cache of absorbent boom nearby.

"I guess we all have a touch of post-traumatic stress disorder,'' said Cheek, noting a post-Katrina surge of divorce, drug use and depression. "This is triggering all those bad feelings. All that fear of the unknown.''

Although oil hasn't reached Mississippi's beaches and they're open to swimming, tourism is down and the unease is palpable. Cheek said the crowd at a recent street fair reached pre-Katrina levels … "but you walked close to the beach and you couldn't miss the smell of oil. Your heart just sinks.''

Pastor Ted Dawson encourages forgiveness, "even for BP.'' And there is faith: After Katrina, Christ Episcopal not only rebuilt, it edged even closer to the Gulf. There is hope that this, too, can be bested. But for every Christ Episcopal, there are congregations still meeting in tents.

"The pastor tries to keep the services short,'' Waveland bar owner Brown, 54, said. She and her husband, Charlie, reopened C&R's Bar & Grill, but now worry about a sustained decline in tourists — and the local economy, fueled by the fishing industry.

Still, echoing many who live by the ocean, she adds, "It's another day in paradise because we love it here, despite it all.''

Miles down the coast, in the tiny fishing village of Coden, Harbin, 47, has cried for her grandchildren, whom she fears will never know a life on the water.

"What do I tell my grandson when he says to me, 'Nana, I want to go fish?'‚'' she said. "How do you tell a 3-year-old we don't know how long? Or if we'll ever be able to fish again.''

Her employer took over the tackle shop three days before the Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 and sent oil spewing into the Gulf. The shop still bears the old name, "Ben's Bait and Tackle.'' Plans to put up a new sign, proclaiming it "Coden Bayou Bait & Tackle'' are on hold.

"There's not a whole lot of point in changing it now,'' Harbin said. "Business has just gone to nothing.'' One recent day's tally: a bag of ice and a can of soda. They plan to add more food, to feed the fishermen-turned oil spotters plying the bayou.

In Pensacola, the Naybors reminisce about moving to the Panhandle some 15 years ago for its laid-back lifestyle on the water. Now they watch as neighbors collect white sand from the beach — in case it never recovers from the brown stains of oily tar — and count the number of boat owners who have left the Island Cove Marina on Bayou Chico since the spill: only a few so far, but likely growing.

"It's been a bit of a ride,'' Anita Naybor said. "I guess we'll just roll with it.''

In Cocodrie, La., the uncertainty prompted Carroll Belanger, 47, to push for one last cast in his favorite fishing haunt before the gusher in the Gulf closes it.

"Laissez les bon temps roulez, that's going to be history,'' Belanger said recently, nursing a beer at the marina during a downpour. "We're fixing to suffer this thing out, but it's just never going to be the same.

"Everywhere that oil hits is dying,'' Belanger said as restaurant crews behind him packed lunches for BP clean-up crews. "And we got no idea how much is under there. How big, how wide and how deep.''

He and his pals tick off the losses: redfish … "you ain't never lived til you wrassled a redfish'' … red drum, black drum, speckled trout and flounder. They share a mordant humor, joking that there's a new category for Louisiana shrimp: "We got shrimp by the 16-20 count, 21-30 count, 10W-30, 10W-40,'' Kirk Mitchell, 51, says, referring to oil viscosity grades.

In a tiny tin trailer at the Sand Dollar Marina on Grand Isle, a trio of Louisiana State University vet students, white coveralls stained brown with oil, administer electrolytes and Pepto Bismol down the long throats of oil-soaked pelicans. They're the first line of recovery, stabilizing the birds for transport to a clinic where they'll be bathed and scrubbed of oil.

"We just assume they're doing the best they can,'' Jaden Kifer said of the birds sent for further treatment. "We can't worry about them when we're moving on to the next bird.''

Callers to radio talk shows light up the boards with worry and fierce opposition to the six-month deepwater drilling moratorium that President Barack Obama imposed after the spill.

In Houma, where energy giant Halliburton welcomes new arrivals to town, M.J. Plaisance, who works on "plug and abandonment'' of oil wells, fears that if the giant oil rigs working Gulf waters move elsewhere, "it's going to take this state's whole economy south.

"No one's happy about what's happened, but you can't shut a whole industry down,'' Plaisance said, picking up the tab for lunch with co-workers at A-Bear's Cafe. "This economy is built on oil. We can't take another hit like that.''

In New Orleans, where P&J Oysters — an institution since 1876 — closed after shucking the last of its oysters, the spill "is all anyone talks about,'' said Arthur Roger, owner of the gallery that bears his name. The showcase of works created by artists before the oil spill changed the landscape opened quietly, without the reception that traditionally accompanies new shows.

"There's nothing to celebrate,'' Roger said.

Even if the well is plugged, the summer season is only heightening anxiety: In Coden, Reese McKinney, 68, who owns a Katrina-battered marina and tackle shop, fears another storm —this one bearing waves of oil.

"If we have a hurricane, we can just pack it in. There's no living with oil,'' McKinney said, surveying his property. "We may be all southern hillbillies and dumb, but we got smarts enough to know it's over once the oil hits land.''

(Jennifer Lebovich and Patricia Mazzei of the Miami Herald contributed to this article.)

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