Oil Spill Crude Disaster

Apr 16, 2011 3:23 PM by Chris Welty

Along Gulf, Spill Still Defines State of Mind

ALONG THE GULF COAST (AP) - In the small brick church across the
road from the chocolate waters of Bayou Lafourche, the Rev. Joseph
Anthony Pereira unbuttons his collar as the last parishioners pull
out of the lot. Tonight, nearly a year after the BP oil spill
began, he's asked his congregation of shrimpers and oil industry
workers to think about lessons learned when survival is in
jeopardy.
But Pereira doubts many from the 5 p.m. Mass are ready to take
his Lenten message to heart.
"You speak about this to them because they forget what they
went through," says Pereira, who pastors at St. Joseph's Church in
Galliano, La., a community that ties its fortunes to the Gulf of
Mexico. "Because BP has spoiled them, given them all this money,
they've gone back to the old ways. They give them big bucks and
they forget."
A year after BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 and
triggering a four-month battle to cap the gusher, the people who
make their lives along the Gulf coastline face countless variations
of the trade-off that troubles Pereira.
They are anxious to banish the spill to memory. But that is very
different from being ready to forgive. They are proud to call
themselves independent, yet unsettled to be relying on a company
and government many distrust. They want nothing more than for their
home places to go back to the way they used to be, and in some of
the most visible ways, they have.
But uncertainty lingers, and anger, too. What might be hidden
under the waves? When, if ever, can people so tied to the water be
made whole?
As the anniversary of the spill approached, an Associated Press
reporter traveled more than 600 miles along the Gulf Coast, from
Louisiana's bayous to the beaches of the Florida Panhandle, through
many twists and turns in the region's ever-evolving state of mind.
At every milepost, there were reminders of the region's bounty
and its resilience. People, voicing faith in the Gulf's power, are
eager to tell anyone who will listen that that their seafood is
safe to eat, that tourists are returning, that the crisis was
overblown - that they will not be bowed.
If only, some say more quietly, it was that simple.
---
At dawn, the sky south of New Orleans is fringed with violet and
pockets of thick fog mix with the odor from Chevron's Oronite fuel
additives plant. But another 14 miles down Louisiana Highway 23,
the sun breaks through and Mark Brockhoeft motors into a marshland
that is its own world.
Mottled ducks erupt from the high grass. Redfish slice the water
like torpedoes. Brockhoeft has plied this bayou as a fly fishing
guide since 1993. But the familiar scene still kindles a smile.
"You can take it for granted," he says. "We did. Until we
were about to lose it."
Before the spill was capped, thick slicks moved into Barataria
Bay, about 10 miles south. The oil was the last in a series of
setbacks for Brockhoeft, who before the last two recessions and
Hurricane Katrina, worked on the water 250 days a year. When BP
flooded the region with money, he hired out his boat for the
cleanup for $1,560 a day. Meanwhile, he sent back customers'
deposits and talked with friends about moving.
Crews kept the oil at bay long enough to keep these backwaters
open to fishing and to cap the well. Now, when clients call to ask,
Brockhoeft assures them that "it's beautiful. Come on down."
But the guide says he'll be glad this year to get bookings for
more than 130 days on the water. And, while he's upbeat about the
health of the estuary, he watches for signs oil and dispersant
might eventually filter into a world that sees fish and other
wildlife migrate between bayou and Gulf.
"I wouldn't bank on the way things are going to be five years
from now," he says. "We might not even be here."
Across the Mississippi River in Pointe a La Hache, oysterman
Stanley Encalade is more certain of the spill's toll. Encalade and
others say they are barely hanging on after officials flooded
shellfishing grounds with river water to keep out the oil, but
killing oysters.
Before Katrina, Encalade says he made about $50,000 a year. But
BP payments are based on the most recent years' business, when he
was climbing out of hurricane-induced debt. So far, he's gotten a
$12,000 check from the compensation fund set up for those whose
livelihoods were affected by the spill.
Encalade worries it could be years before the oyster come back.
So he's refitting his boat, Lady Pamela, with shrimping nets. But
that is not a long-term answer.
"You're going to put me out of business for five or six years
and you're going to pay me for the worst two years of my life? No
man, I don't think so," Encalade says. "It's not over by a
longshot."
---
At Gulfport, Miss. the next morning, Susan Joseph is out on the
sand for sunrise, a devotion from Micah 6:8 ("O people, the Lord
has told you what is good...") on her smartphone.
Joseph, from Prosper, Texas, is here to see her newborn
grandchild, returning to the area where she spent childhood
summers, at her grandmother's house a block from the beach.
"I have a strong faith in God and I'm just really thankful he
spared this area because it really is coming back," Joseph says.
"It's just kind of sweet to know that in a few years I'll be able
to bring my granddaughter out here and play with her and tell her
the stories."
The stories Melvin and Christy Barnes' five daughters are
hearing, though, are very different. In 2004, the couple - she's a
former Allstate agent, he was a boiler operator - used retirement
savings to buy a seafood restaurant and market in Bay St. Louis,
Miss.
Katrina put the restaurant, Cuz's, under more than 20 feet of
water. The Barneses rebuilt and business was good enough that they
employed 22.
But the spill closed waters that supplied much of the catch sold
in the market. Customers stayed away from the restaurant, too,
repulsed by the idea of eating Gulf seafood. Christy says they've
lost "an easy half a million" in sales. The business now employs
six - its owners included.
When Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer supervising the BP spill
compensation fund, met local business owners at the American Legion
post in January, Melvin Barnes unloaded. Fund workers had lost his
claim twice. They didn't seem to understand he was barely making
it.
"One of the guys (from the compensation fund) got on the phone,
he says, `Well Cuz, it's not costing you as much to operate,"'
Melvin Barnes recalls. "I said, `Are you kidding me?"'
The Barneses have talked about closing and reopening inland, but
doubt there would be as many customers for a seafood place. So they
wait for an interim compensation offer to arrive.
"It's going to be all right," Melvin says, sounding anything
but convinced. "I want to stay positive. Negative attracts
negative. But we're doing OK. Each day gets better. Today wasn't a
good day, but ..."
The uncertainties facing the Barneses are very different from
the ones occupying minds down the coast at The Institute for Marine
Mammal Studies in Gulfport. Inside a white vinyl Quonset hut,
workers huddle over tanks, tending to 50 sea turtles hooked
accidentally in Mississippi Sound last spring and summer. Another
300 turtles washed up dead. In a normal year, the institute might
take in two or three.
But after months of observation, the institute's staff can only
guess about possible connections between the strandings and spill,
theorizing that the turtles swam in to escape the oil, or were
chasing fish that were trying to escape.
"It's a little tricky. You see changes. You make observations.
But sometimes you don't necessarily know what caused it," research
assistant Megan Broadway says. "It's really a long-term process.
It's not like next week you'll have answers."
---
By afternoon, we're heading down two-lane highway 88 to Bayou La
Batre, "the seafood capital of Alabama."
Stan Wright has been mayor of this community of fishermen,
shipbuilders, and shrimp and oyster processors for 11 years. Once,
he split his time between the elected post and running his family's
oyster business. But it's been closed since last May, when the
spill choked off supply.
"What happens with a hurricane is when the wind stops blowing,
we start rebuilding," says Wright, who wears blue mechanic's
clothes to city hall and owns a pickup with an "OYSTERS" license
plate. "But we don't know when the wind's going to quit blowing
with the oil spill."
This confounds Wright, who used to consider himself expert at
marshaling forces and working the system for aid. After Katrina, he
turned his house into a command center. The town used aid dollars
to buy 74 acres on high land and build 100 houses for residents who
lost theirs to the storm.
Since the spill, Bayou La Batre - which has a population of
2,800 - has filmed its own television commercial, promising its
seafood is safe.
But mayor and town remain hamstrung.
Wright turns his pickup on to Shell Belt Road, pointing out the
seafood plants shut by the spill. His spirits are buoyed when he
pulls up alongside Dominick Ficarino, who tells how his shrimp
processing business is up and thriving, promising customers its
product can pass any test.
"Boy, I need you to get you some pom-poms. You could be my
cheerleader," the mayor tells him.
But the feeling doesn't last. Wright, who has been oystering for
48 of his 54 years, misses getting up at 4 a.m. to go to the family
plant on Faith Street. And while he's financially secure, he's
doesn't know how long many of his town's people can stay sidelined.
"People live here because they've got a job here. It's not
because they love it here. It's because they work here and this is
their life," he says. "It's hard to know what to tell them."
---
The sign proclaims our arrival at the "world's whitest
beaches." And a year after Pensacola Beach, Fla., was licked by
the oil, the sand looks like sugar under a crystal sky.
At the Paradise Inn, a 55-room, tangerine-and-coral-hued motel,
manager John Turk is busy sorting through reservations, but hasn't
forgotten last year.
"Boy, it just killed us to see that oil," Turk says. "You
could open the patio door of the house and smell it."
Two years ago, he and his wife shelved their lives in Chicago to
follow a dream and move down for a life of beach walks and
kayaking.
At the height of the spill, Turk's wife worried the school where
she teaches might be closed to protect children from the fumes. In
the hotel, with most rooms going begging, Turk watched endless news
of the oil on the TV in the lobby. Now, he marvels at how quickly
the spill was capped, although he remains disappointed in the
federal government's supervision of oil exploration.
"I can't believe they let somebody go down that deep, 5,000
feet, and there weren't five or six backups," he says. "Mother
Nature was very forgiving. But one of these days, she's not going
to be."
On this sun-filled afternoon, though, the allure that has drawn
people to Florida's waters since the days of Ponce De Leon remains
intact.
Down U.S. 98, it has made a believer of Steve DeNeef, unpacking
supplies for his new scuba diving shop.
Late last year, DeNeef learned his scuba store in Oceanside,
Calif., was losing its lease. About that time, his wife, Amy, flew
east to see their son, an Army helicopter pilot soon to leave for
Afghanistan. She drove down to walk the beaches and called to
report water so clear she could see the bottom.
DeNeef was intrigued. He remembered how, on a trip to New
Orleans months after Katrina, he'd been amazed to find Bourbon
Street rollicking. So he visited Florida, too, taking note of crews
in Hazmat suits "trying to find oil," although he didn't see any.
"That didn't scare us. It's like stuff comes, stuff goes," he
says.
Now, a year after the spill's start, DeNeef's 27-foot Sea Ray is
parked out back, testament to faith in the Gulf's resilience. Soon,
the first customers will come in with questions about the waters
that are this region's greatest treasure. And DeNeef knows just
what to tell them.
"Hey, I just got here," he'll say. "Let's go experience it
together."

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