This summer, Patagonia teamed up with non-profit environmental and social justice group, Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB), to assist with a project massive in scale and ambition: to track the full impact of the greatest ecological disaster in American history, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of Spring 2010.
It was the height of hurricane season in southern Louisiana when we landed in
mid-August, the five-year anniversary of Katrina a couple weeks away. Headed
for Dulac – a low-lying bayou town about an hour and a half southwest of New
Orleans – we were told we’d be evacuated if the weather acted up.
Our job was to go door-to-door surveying Dulac’s 2,500 or so residents about
the health, financial and cultural impacts of the BP oil spill. The nearest oil had
reportedly made its way into a marsh a dozen or so miles away.
Oil and commercial shrimping are the area’s biggest employers and have
coexisted peaceably for many years. This was reinforced by a billboard we
passed on our way down from New Orleans advertising the 75th annual Shrimp
& Petroleum Festival over in Morgan City. Sweet Gulf oil and sweet Gulf shrimp.
In southern Louisiana, people depend on both. Moratoriums on either meet with equal enthusiasm.
We stayed at the Dulac Community Center, a Methodist-run facility with a
bunkhouse and kitchen. Working in teams of two, sometimes three, we hit
neighborhoods from 9:30-noon and again from 3-5, knocking on the doors of
homes along Shrimpers Row, Avet Street, Coonies Court and others. Dulac
is hot and humid in mid-August. Trash litters the streets and waterways. The
metallic colors of boat and construction yards, pipelines and processing plants
contrast with the vibrant green and blue of the bayou.
Un-spayed and un-neutered dogs and cats are legion in Dulac. They lie listlessly in the heat or bark (the dogs, anyway) at strangers from yards and balconies. One aggressive stray delivered a skin-breaking bite to the leg of a member of our group. He had to drive 30 minutes to Houma for medical attention.
Many homes in Dulac and neighboring communities sit high on stilts to keep
them safe from hurricane flood waters. People used federal “Road Home”
money to have their houses and trailers raised. Other buildings less fortunate lay abandoned or in ruin. A flotilla of broken boats litter the banks of Grand Caillou Canal.
During our three-and-a-half-day canvas, my teammate and I spoke with 30 or so people: a beautician, oil-field worker, boat fueler, deckhand, retired social worker, retired teacher, disabled shrimper, bookkeeper, truck driver, and unemployed among them. One day, three of eight we interviewed shared the surname Billiot. We met a lot of Boudreauxs and Verdins, too.
Few people we spoke with reported having smelled oil or dispersant, or said
they’d suffered health problems they would attribute to the spill. But it was hard to know. Much of Dulac is an industrial zone, stained with oil and scented with exhaust.
The economic effects of the oil spill were clearer. Everyone was acquainted with or related to a commercial shrimper who’d been forced to sit out the May season because their fishing grounds had been closed. Many idled fishermen received BP relief money, but some said the checks were sporadic or had quit coming. Some had signed up with “Vessels of Opportunity,” a BP program that paid them to put out boom and skim for oil rather than spread their butterfly nets and fish for shrimp.
Shrimp is a staple part of people’s diets in these parts. Few buy it, getting it
instead from friends and neighbors. But some said they were no longer eating
shrimp and other seafood because of the spill. Others weren’t that worried
about it. Indeed, shrimp still figured prominently on the menu at Schmoopy’s,
Dulac’s largest eatery, along with deep-fried crawfish, shrimp gumbo and Po-Boy sandwiches.
Katrina, Rita, Ike and Gustav. Because of hurricane flooding, some residents
had been forced to drain the water, clean the mud and remove the drywall from their homes three or more times over the years. They were a resilient community, people who mostly did for themselves and never got too attached to their belongings. Despite the ever-present dangers of flooding and 100-mile-an-hour winds, few expressed interest in ever leaving Dulac. Roots were deep, family ties were strong, and the bayou was home.
It wasn’t the oil spill so much as it was the endless cycle of hurricanes that
seemed to concern people most. But the two together – the storms and the oil
– that was the real worry. Many expected the next big storm would bring BP’s
mistake to their very doorsteps, tarring the little town of Dulac with a thick coat of Louisiana Sweet, the Gulf’s unfortunate lifeblood.