Along Gulf, Spill Still Defines State of Mind

Saturday, 16 Apr 2011 01:20 PM

 

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ALONG THE GULF COAST (AP) — In the small brick church just 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 that 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 drilling rig exploded, killing 11 and triggering a four-month battle to contain and cap the gusher, the people who make their lives along the Gulf's coastline face countless variations of the tradeoff 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. As proof, they point to sand scoured to a dazzling white by cleanup crews.

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 climbs into a flat-bottomed boat painted camouflage, motoring into a marshland that is its own world.

A flock of mottled ducks erupts from the high grass. The fins of fat redfish slice the water like torpedoes. Brockhoeft, who sports a thick moustache and a Saints cap, has been plying 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, connected to the bayou about 10 miles south. The oil was the last in a series of setbacks for Brockhoeft, who once worked on the water 250 days a year. But that was before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prevented tourists from flying down to fish. Hurricane Katrina swamped this part of Plaquemines Parish, putting it off limits for weeks and taking the lodges that accommodate anglers out of commission. The area rebuilt, but the recession kept visitors away.

If oil made it to the marshes, Brockhoeft knew, it would be over. When BP flooded the region with money, Brockhoeft rented out a boat and crew to a cleanup contractor at $1,560 a day for 82 days. Meanwhile, he sent back customers' deposits and talked with friends about moving.

"Where the hell are we going to go? We were born down here. We spent our lives down here. Our livelihood is here," says Brockhoeft, who is 58 and worked for a mosquito control company before becoming a guide.

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 the oil and chemicals used to disperse it might eventually filter into a world that sees fish and other wildlife migrate between bayou and Gulf.

"The way things are going now, 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 by ferry, in the hamlet of Pointe a La Hache, oysterman Stanley Encalade is far more certain of the spill's toll. Encalade and others say they are barely hanging on after their shellfishing grounds were flooded by river water unleashed by officials to keep out the oil, but killing the oysters.

Before Katrina lifted his family's boats out of the harbor and into the road a half mile away, 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 beds come back. So he's refitting his boat, Lady Pamela, with shrimping nets. But that is not a long-term answer, he says, his voice filling with anger.

"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."

___

On the beach at Gulfport, Miss. the next morning, the air's cool enough for a windbreaker. But with two cups of hotel coffee for fortification, Susan Joseph is out on the sand in time for sunrise. She studies a morning 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 first grandchild, born the day before. The visit brings her back to the area where she spent childhood summers, at her grandmother's house a block from the beach. During the spill she worried that a place that held so many prized memories would be ruined.

"I have a strong faith in God and I'm just really thankful he spared this area because it really is coming back," says Joseph, looking out the laughing gulls gathered at low tide. "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 late 2004, the couple — she's a former Allstate agent, he was a boiler operator — took most of the money out of their 401(k) plans and used it to buy a seafood restaurant and market in Bay St. Louis, Miss. They renamed it "Cuz's," inspired by a nickname Melvin applies to many of his friends and customers, as well as to himself.

The restaurant is set back a few miles from the coast, but Katrina put it under more than 20 feet of water. The Barneses rebuilt, raising the restaurant up to a second floor. Business was good enough that they employed 22 workers serving up gumbo and mahi mahi, doing $4,000 in sales on weekend nights, they say.

But the oil 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 in the months since. The business now employs six — its owners included.

When Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer supervising the BP spill compensation fund, faced local business owners in a meeting at the American Legion post in January, Melvin Barnes unloaded. Fund workers had lost his claim twice. They didn't seem to grasp the fact that the restaurant 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. For now, they've sold off trucks to raise cash and are waiting 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 that were 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. More questions are raised by the unexplained deaths of dozens of dolphins that have washed up on Gulf beaches since January.

"It's a little tricky. You see changes. You make observations. But sometimes you don't necessarily know what caused it," said Megan Broadway, a research assistant at IMMS. "It's really a long-term process. It's not like next week you'll have answers."

___

By afternoon, we've crossed the state line and turn 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 business shucking shellfish trucked in from Louisiana. 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 clothing 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, running off generators and serving up gumbo and spaghetti to volunteers. The town used aid dollars to buy 74 acres on high land and build a subdivision of 100 houses it rents to residents who lost their homes to the storm.

Since the spill, Bayou La Batre — which has a population of 2,800 — has filmed its own television commercial, a proud testimonial 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 and on the bayou beyond, boats that bring in the catch.

Here's King Kreole, a crawfish processing plant that employed 70, shut down by the spill. There's Drawdy's Crab Co., which had a workforce of 200. It's shut, too. Wright's 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 spill's toll, though, is a matter of perspective. Down the coast in Gulf Shores, Joseph Stallworth motors an all-terrain vehicle along the beach, collecting tar balls gathered by the oil clean-up crew he supervises.

"By lunch we'll have a whole bucket," says Stallworth, tipping the container forward with hands encased in rubber gloves. "Some days we get more than others, depending on the tide."

Stallworth, 59, has been coming to a family cabin here since long before the high-rises and neon souvenir emporiums went up. Until the spill he worked as a therapist at a mental health center. But he gladly set that aside to work for BP's money — a supervisor makes $18 to $22 an hour — a job he hopes is good for another two years.

Once the water warms, Stallworth says he's planning on going in with a snorkel to hunt for mats of congealed oil he's heard may have collected on the bottom.

Still, he blames the media for far overstating the spill's damage, which he sees as akin to a drop in a very big ocean. And he's confident that his crew has unseen help in its assigned task.

"Mother Nature will take care of anything that humans can do," he says. "I believe in God. ... He's going to take care of it."

___

The sign just before the bridge 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 motel across the road from the big towers fronting the Gulf, manager John Turk is busy sorting through reservations. Business has picked up in the past two weeks and the hope is tourists have forgotten last year. But that doesn't mean Turk can.

"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 — he worked in real estate, she's an elementary school teacher — 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 works might be closed to protect children from the fumes. In the hotel, with most rooms going begging, Turk and assistant manager Megan Nelson watched endless news of the oil on the TV in the lobby. Now, Turk 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 appears intact, more powerful even then memories of the spill.

Down U.S. 98, it has made a believer of Steve DeNeef, still busy unpacking supplies for his new business. This is the perfect place and time, he says, to open a 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 they'd been hearing about in the news and called to report sand like snow, and 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 and new wet suits hang on the rack, testaments to faith in the Gulf's resilience. Soon, the first customers will come in, filled with questions about the mysteries of 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."

___

Adam Geller is a New York-based national writer for The Associated Press. He can be reached at features(at)ap.org.

© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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