For generations, residents in the predominantly African-American towns dotting the East Bank of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish La., have made a living by fishing the waters surrounding them.
But many in these rural communities, which were almost destroyed by Hurricane Katrina nearly five years ago, fear their health, environment and livelihoods are in jeopardy thanks to the Gulf oil spill. It has sickened residents, threatened their traditional way of life, crippled the fishing industry there and left scores out of work.
“There’s just so many uncertainties,” said the Rev. Tyronne Edwards, a Plaquemines Parish native and the founder and executive director of the Zion Travelers Cooperative Center in Phoenix, La, a non-profit community advocacy organization that worked to rebuild the town following Hurricane Katrina. “Just the impact of all the uncertainty; not only can’t the fishermen go to work, but there’s uncertainty about how safe the water is and the air we breathe.”
Known as “the big toe that flips out the boot,” Plaquemines Parish — the strip of land where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico — is the southernmost point in Louisiana and home to about 21,000, 22 percent of whom are African-American, according to the U.S. Census. The majority has made their living through farming, construction and the fish and shellfish industry, and 6.5 percent of businesses are black-owned.
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“They don’t know when they’ll be able to go back to work,” Rev. Edwards said of how fishermen were coping with the effects of the oil spill. “They don’t know how long they’ll be out of work. That brings on a lot of anxiety.”
As of Wednesday, 78,597 miles, or 32.5 percent of the Gulf’s fishing areas, remained closed due to the spill, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service.
The Rev. Edwards, who is also an associate minister at the Zion Travelers Baptist Church in Phoenix, said although BP established a claim center on the East Bank, it hasn’t hired large numbers of the now-unemployed fishermen in his community for its “Vessels of Opportunity” program, which employs the out of work to clean up the spill. He said BP is hiring only a certain number of people, and in order to qualify, fishermen must meet certain criteria, like possessing a specific type of boat.
“We don’t have a lot of our community involved in the Vessels of Opportunity program,” Rev. Edwards said. “They’re not hiring local people. We’re still struggling around that.”
More than 13,000 people have applied for clean-up jobs through the Louisiana Workforce Commission, according to state officials.
But besides economics, Rev. Edwards said he is alarmed that some locals who worked on the water near the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion have complained of coughs, runny nose and dizziness. He said he’s been working with Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser to establish a community advisory health group on the East Bank, which would employ area residents to assess and monitor symptoms related to exposure to the oil and dispersants.
The crisis in Plaquemines Parish is the latest example of the paralyzing effect of the Gulf oil spill. Although African-Americans have been affected, so has every ethnic group who has helped fashion the parish’s cultural tapestry, including Cajuns, Croatians, Vietnamese, Mexicans and Native Americans.
“This nightmarish situation, it has nothing to do with race, gender, or nationality,” said Gregory Holt, president of Daybrook Fisheries, a seafood production and processing company in Plaquemines Parish that also suffered heavy losses during Hurricane Katrina. “Everybody’s in this together,” Holt said. “It’s going to effect the wealthy and the poor in the same way. It’s beyond most people’s comprehension.”
Holt said the company was struggling following the oil spill and that his first priority was to protect his approximately 330 employees.
“We have never let anybody go during these crises,” Holt said. “Our first duty is to take care of our people. We have a wonderful little company, and we’re going to keep it a wonderful little company. But we’re going to take it on the chin right now.”
The oil spill has triggered another negative consequence; each passing week that the fishing boats idle creates a ripple effect for the other businesses down the line that depend on their catch — like wholesalers and processors — casting the net of desperation even wider.
“It’s a tremendous impact, because it’s a chain reaction,” said Eddie Kurtich, the owner of Eddie’s Quality Oysters in the Plaquemines Parish community of Port Sulphur, and who has been in the wholesale oyster business for 40 years. Kurtich, who employs a half-dozen people, said he sold the last of the oysters from his own lease holdings weeks ago. He’s bought more oysters from another wholesaler, but now has got nothing left to sell. Last June, Kurtich said the company sold about 40,000 100-pound sacks of oysters. But this June, he expects to sell 6,000 to 8,000 sacks.
Kurtich said he filed a claim with BP, but payouts haven’t been substantial. He said he knew others who’d received between $1,500 and $2,500.
“Hardly anybody’s getting big money,” he said.
Back in Phoenix on the East Bank, the Rev. Edwards said he’s worried about the toll the oil spill may take on resident’s mental health.
“We’re wondering whether fishermen are going to have substance abuse problems later on,” he said, “whether there’s going to be some domestic problems happening because of tension (from) not being able to work. All these uncertainties are causing serious dynamics in our community, and we’re concerned about it.”
The hurricane season, which began earlier this month and lasts until Nov. 30, is another threat, Rev. Edwards said.
“We don’t need anything to put this oil onshore,” Rev. Edwards said. “It’s somewhat frightening for a lot of people. We’re trying to keep people hopeful.”
Despite the pain and hardship they’re facing, Rev. Edwards said his community is determined to revive itself, just like it did following Hurricane Katrina.
“We’ve got a lot of challenges facing us,” he said, “but we’re just prayerful — and working at the same time — to solve the problem.”