Posted: Jul 26, 2010 5:52 AM by Sharlee Barriere
GRAND ISLE, La. (AP) - The women of Grand Isle are nervous. Used
to be, they say, they could walk the streets of their beachside
town alone, getting a little exercise after the hottest part of the
day or setting out the trash after midnight.
Now, a waitress won't let her 14-year-old daughter stroll to the
store for a Coke, a souvenir shop owner is afraid to sit on her
porch after dark and a bartender deadbolts her door, a newly
purchased gun nearby.
The vacationing families and sport fishermen who make this
tourist town of 1,500 what it is are absent this summer, replaced
by an army of workers brought in by BP to clean up the massive Gulf
Coast oil spill.
The outsiders walk in small groups along Route 1 at workday's
end and sometimes cut across lawns and under elevated houses to
reach bars like Daddy's Money, where women wrestle in oil. Some
wear low-slung jeans, which prompted this warning note on one
convenience store door: "No pants on the ground allowed."
What do such reactions mean? A BP official says some culture
clash is understandable, though he's occasionally seen outright
racial bias at work. But talk to some of the mostly white
residents, and they don't directly mention the skin color of the
workers, most of whom are black.
The workers, they say, just act different. And that makes some
people uneasy, even though the vast majority of the workers pose no
Vicki McVey, a 44-year-old who pours beers at Artie's Sports
Bar, says she's not taking any chances.
"Never had a gun. Never had a weapon. Now I got a weapon right
next to my bed," says McVey, who stopped taking her grandson to
the park when cleanup workers moved into a trailer nearby.
"You go to the park and they come and they touch you and want
to talk to you and they harass you," she complains.
Fears like McVey's don't surprise the men whose presence prompts
them. Friday night, several black men in town for the cleanup sat
in a grassy area near the island's only grocery store, deciding
what meat to buy to grill for dinner. They said they hadn't been
treated badly, though like most cleanup workers along the coast,
they didn't want to give their names for fear of losing their jobs.
"This little town is just like any little town in the
country," said one, who identified himself only as Daryl. "A
bunch of strangers are going to scare them. A bunch of black
strangers are going to scare them even more."
Another worker said he and his peers mostly just keep to
"People treat you OK," he said. "But they haven't put any
picnics on for us."
People in town are talking about a recent stabbing, the first
anyone can remember in ages (one published report said both victim
and attacker were cleanup workers). Locals suspect the workers when
items go missing now, including golf carts that folks often use to
No one offers facts and figures to back up the stories. Neither
the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office nor Police Chief Euris
DuBois, who's upset over recent media reports about his town, would
provide crime statistics or speak to The Associated Press.
But the perception of a problem is undeniable.
"You used to be able to go and enjoy yourself, you know? Have a
few drinks with your friends," says 68-year-old Emma Chighizola,
who used to sit outside and listen to the waves after a day of
selling T-shirts and seashell tchotchkes at Blue Water Souvenirs.
"Now it's kind of dangerous. There's too many strangers."
Parish Councilman Chris Roberts says he's witnessed "hostile
environments ... no question."
Tension is natural when a small town has a sudden influx of
outsiders, Roberts says, and parish officials are monitoring it.
But bringing in help is necessary, he said: "There's not (local)
people lining up to go work in 105-degree heat to clean the
BP spokesman Jason French says some 1,800 workers from around
the country report to Grand Isle at least once a day, including
almost 300 who clean the town's beaches. BP tried to hire locals,
he says, but no more than three dozen submitted applications for
jobs that pay as little as $12 an hour.
Some tension in town is over cultural differences, he says,
"but I can't deny there has been some racism."
While BP won't respond to complaints it considers motivated by
bias, French says it does promptly address any legitimate
behavioral problems. Workers, for example, were told to stop
crossing lawns because they were trespassing.
BP also dismissed some cleanup workers for unspecified
misbehavior, though French can't say how many because they worked
for subcontractors. The oil company has begun requiring those
contractors to screen workers for drug and alcohol use as a
condition of employment.
"As someone who's been here for months, I get frustrated when
workers are painted with a broad brush or the community is painted
with a broad brush," French says. "It's not a community of
racists any more than we have convicts working the beach.
"These are hardworking people working the beaches," he says,
"and there are people who are nervous because they're seeing
something they haven't seen before."
All along the Louisiana coast, the flood of oil spill workers
has temporarily altered towns.
Quiet fishing villages in St. Bernard Parish have become small
cities that bustle like military bases, with security checkpoints,
a round-the-clock police presence and the never-ending rumble of
trucks hauling food, trash and equipment on narrow country roads.
And besides the influx of men and machines, there's a deeper
factor underlying locals' mood. They talk of frustration over the
loss of something simple - the joy of a summer on the water. That
disappeared when the Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20, killing
11 oil rig workers and spilling millions of gallons of oil.
"You don't hear no fishing stories, no beach stories, no
talking about their kids and how they caught their first fish. None
of that," says Buggie Vegas, owner of the Bridge Side Marina in
Grand Isle. "It's just work, work, work. Every day, from a
Saturday to a Monday to a Wednesday. We don't know what day it is.
It don't matter what day it is."
Vegas' 30 rental units are full and his store still has some
business, but it's different: Instead of selling bait and tackle or
T-shirts, he's stocking green plastic hardhats, black rubber boots
and tie-down straps.
"Everybody's like robots," he says. "They just trying to get
Artie's Sports Bar normally employs 16 bartenders who serve
2,000 people and pocket at least $250 in tips on a Saturday night.
Now, it takes just six of them to wait on a crowd of 100.
Security guards who used to work only on weekends now monitor
the door at Artie's every night, checking patrons for weapons and
watching closely for trouble.
When she doesn't like how things are going, McVey plays country
music, hoping the crowd will move on.
Shannon Ronquille, a 33-year-old waitress, says authorities
patrol the beach on four-wheelers at night, protecting waterfront
homes that owners are reluctant to rent to cleanup crews.
It doesn't help that business is off more than 60 percent at
Barataria Seafood Grill, the island's only fine dining
establishment - a place where, in normal times, dressed-up
vacationers often wait an hour for seating.
"Now," Ronquille says, looking over the empty, white
linen-covered tables, "we have guys coming in with oil all over
Two and a half hours away in Arabi, the tension manifests itself
There, a former school, renamed Camp Hope after Hurricane
Katrina, has for five years been home to volunteers from across the
country who came to rebuild storm-wrecked homes.
But in June, the volunteers were told to move: BP was converting
the building to a work camp.
"All the locals were more than happy to see AmeriCorps people
here, that people were helping to rebuild, and it's just a stark
contrast to that," says 20-year-old AmeriCorps worker Kyla
Philbrook, of Albany, N.Y.
St. Bernard Parish has been spared the complaints that mar Grand
Isle for several reasons: In Hopedale, Shell Beach and Delacroix,
there's no infrastructure to support thousands of workers. No
grocery stores. No bars. No motels. Many workers are bused in for
Law enforcement, citing lessons from Katrina, also set the tone
early on: In May, Sheriff Jack Stephens declared the community
"won't tolerate a criminal invasion in the guise of people
claiming they are arriving to help."
A month later, he asked federal immigration officials to
investigate claims illegal immigrants were working for BP.
"We're not worried about people who want to earn an honest
buck," he said at the time.
Since then, deputies have made only a handful of arrests. Under
a deal with BP, off-duty deputies provide paid security at worker
encampments. And deputies "engage" every chance they get, whether
at a traffic stop or a checkpoint, says Chief Deputy James
Pohlmann, who notes that BP has strict rules for the Arabi camp.
"It's like an extension of the job. There's no alcohol, no
weapons," he says. "If you leave, you have to leave on a shuttle
bus to a parking lot that's offsite."
Though workers are free to leave in their own vehicles, they are
not free to walk around the neighborhood. If caught doing so, their
ID is seized, "and what that means is, you lost your job."
In Hopedale, oysterboat captain Michael Anglin says the
strategies are working. He's even made some friends among the
"There's tension sometimes, but it's just like any job," he
says. "It's mostly been on where you park your car. In the wrong
spot, somebody gets a little arrogant. And fishermen don't put up
with that. It's our town, ya know. You just visiting."
Traffic, in fact, is the biggest complaint among residents who
watch weed-filled lots slashed and burned to make way for trailers.
At the end of Hopedale Highway in Breton Sound Marina, BP runs a
mess tent that feeds workers three meals a day. That means a steady
stream of vehicles.
"I'm scared to let my kids cross the highway," says
55-year-old former fisherman Kurt Guerra, his 9-year-old daughter
Cassie playing on a swingset a few hundred feet from the pavement.
The presence of so many strangers is unsettling, Guerra says,
but with barely a place to buy a beer, problems are few.
"Thank God they keep 'em working all the time," he says.