May 25, 2010
Each day, news reports provide information about how far the oil has spread and predictions on where it is heading; there is information about wetlands and wildlife impact; there is information about the dispersants being used to break up the oil…there is not much about the spiritual, emotional and economic impact on the people who live in Southern Louisiana.
The United Church of Christ working with Church World Service, Mennonite Disaster Service, and Lutheran Disaster Response will be travelling to Plaquemines Parish, LA in early June for a time of listening, and conversation with local residents of communities impacted by the oil spill. Our response to the people in need is not yet known, however, we continue to pray for all.
Information about the response and the impact on Louisiana may be found at:
Deep Water Horizon Response:
Louisiana Environmental Action Network:
Voices of the People of Plaquemines Parish, by Scott Sundberg, Communications Director with input from Paul Unruh, MDS Community Worker, Mennonite Disaster Service:
MDS Diamond, La. caretaker Mike Wilson was noting how there has been a recent resurgence of flora and fauna in the lower part of Plaquemines Parish since Katrina. For five years one didn't hear or see a lot of the wildlife. "Now, I'm starting to hear coyotes, and owls. We're seeing hummingbirds and cardinals, and the bees are back, and the blackberries, there are loads of blackberries."
But it seems a little difficult to rejoice too much, as the coast, battered by Katrina, and now starting to be hit by the oil spill from the destroyed oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
Paul Sylve, a fisherman, sometime oil worker and occasional preacher at River of Life Church talked about having to sign up for food stamps. "This is not good. The number one thing we depend on is the seafood—the fishing, the shrimping, crabbing and hunting."
Sitting in the fellowship hall of Port Sulphur Baptist his church, where his wife Carolyn teaches, they were setting up for graduation. Sylve discussed the local situation with Paul Unruh, from Newton, KS, who has effectively worked as a community worker (also an MDs board member) in Plaquemines Parish for MDs since Hurricane Katrina. Sylve compared his situation to Kansas.
"In Kansas you depend on the farming; if they said you can't farm… that's what they're doing to us."
The shrimp season was opened early, but the catch and the size of the shrimp was too small. "Everyone has begun taking a loss." The shrimp season may open again, but the winds could shift, and everything could be shut down again."
Partial settlements for lost income to date are being arranged by BP, one of the companies responsible for the spill, but it is only a partial compensation, and some are wary of the offer, wondering if other strings are attached. "Our pastor says this is reimbursement for lost time." State and local officials are, according to Sylve and others we talked to, looking after their people.
Sylve continued, saying, "Well, if it [the oil spill] hits land, then there is land loss, a breakdown of the marshes, then animals can't nest right; we're not going to be able to fish right." He added, after some comments from his wife, Carolyn, and pointing behind him to his 11-year-old daughter, "Will our kids be able to fish? Pray, let's pray they can. What kind of life are they going to have?" The discussion was also seasoned with the reality that the storm season—hurricane season, starts the first of June. A hurricane would redistribute the oil
"If we can't shrimp, or fish, or crab, we can't eat. More than fifty percent of our food comes from the water." Carolyn joined in saying the amount was even higher, not to mention what is acquired through hunting, such as ducks, nutria and other wildlife. "My grocery bill will skyrocket," she said.
"Some people seem like they're giving up hope," Sylve said. "Our job is to keep up hope." He then went into a lesson from the book of Luke, and how Jesus came to heal the broken-hearted. But then he added, "We're just keeping our noses out of the water. But even if the oil comes, how would my spirit be? But, if you're writing about anything, write about the blessings of the Lord."
The next morning over a breakfast of grits and eggs at the local, boisterous so-called donut shop in, the conversations of the locals was peppered with talks of oil. Business was up, as haz-mat oil spill workers are driving up and down Highway 213, which snakes down on the west side of the levees along the Mississippi. The area looks on the map like a finger pointing down into the Gulf of Mexico. The New Orleans daily, the Times-Picayune, featured three stores about the oil spill on the front page, and a total of at least 12 articles in the paper relating to the catastrophe. The spill will not only affect the fishermen (who also hunt for food), but is also impacting charter boat businesses, and the seafood processing and transportation sector. There was talk in the paper and in the dining room of the collapse of the Louisiana seafood industry.
"I can't believe we still have people five years still so involved in our lives; we're still being blessed" said George Harold Reno at the beginning of the service at Lighthouse Fellowship in Buras, La. In the congregation were two people from MDS, including Unruh.
At 6 am on Sunday mornings, Pastor George Reno Sr. puts the coffee on in the fellowship hall of Lighthouse Fellowship. Soon after, parishioners start to show up, drinking coffee and chatting until the service starts at 10 pm.
Reno Sr. had been laid up with a strep infection for six months. But when asked about the oil spill, Reno Sr. said, "Right now, they're shutting us down completely." His son, George Harold said that "we're just waiting for a call to go out there and work on the spill," which was a common refrain from just about every fisherman we talked to. Even so, during the prayer time at the church, Ruby Reno, George Sr.'s wife, asked for prayer for the people in Tennessee.
[Scott led the congregation, with Paul's help, in the singing of "I Sing the Mighty Power of God," which seemed appropriate. Read the words.]
"We're here to maintain contact," said Unruh to the congregation before the sermon. "MDS folks have worked here since Katrina. There are a lot of Mennonite, Amish and Brethren in Christ in the US and Canada who are wondering how you're doing."
Unruh later said, "There's a fair amount of fear among our Gulf States constituents that a multi-generational way of life may end. The locals have one foot in the fishing industry, and they are also beholding to the oil industry that may eliminate their way of life. There's fear about their age-old way of life."
[Jimbo Brown, who has long been associated with Lighthouse Fellowship, but who lives near Gulfport, Miss., expressed over lunch his concern for God's creation in all of this.]
Lloyd "Boudreaux" Boudreaux has spent some 15 or 16 years working on oil rigs. Over lunch after the service, Boudreaux expressed that "it all looks bad; they may never get rid of it, and if it gets into the Gulf Stream, look out."
It took a little sleuthing and several dirt roads to finally arrive at Plaquemines Parish marina, in Venice. The marinas we visited all had several communications trucks, and several TV stations roaming about, but there was really little action or interviews we could see. By what seemed like chance, we spotted across the water the boat we were looking for, a shrimp boat called the St. Martin. Another road, and a few more turns, and we arrived on the other side of the marina. It was pretty deserted, and the one person we saw seemed to vanish before we could ask about the person we were looking for. At another boat, we found a family with the same last name, but they had never heard of the person we were seeking.
When we arrived at the boat, Unruh found a stick, and used it to rap on the boat for attention. Soon a shirtless fellow and his dog emerged from the interior of the boat, and he confirmed he was Thuong Nguyen, whom we had been looking for. His dog was Lucky, a Katrina dog he found as a pup.
"Come on in, I was just taking a nap, said Thuong (pronounced Tong), who has long been associated with Lighthouse Fellowship.
In the boats galley, with bottles of Vietnamese fish sauce, Hoisin sauce, chili sauces, a rice cooker and the like, we sat down at a table to talk. Some time ago, Thuong has three or so Mennonites come and help him on his boat with repairs.
Thuong voiced what we were to hear a few more times during the coming day. "This is a disaster you can't quite see yet. You see some of the oil on the top of the water, but not what is going down in the water… This oil is like a disease; it kills the seafood, but people can't see it. And if a hurricane comes, is will redistribute the disaster… My idea is that it will take two to 10 years to get back to normal"
"For everyone, we don't know what's going on. This could destroy the Louisiana coast for years. I hate to see the ocean destroyed. 85% of those who live around here are fishermen, so they'd be out of a job. We want to hurry and work to get the seafood for everyone to eat."
Thuong then voiced something else that was a common refrain, "I'm 50 years old, I can't go out and find a job; this is all I know." Thuong also mentioned that there has been some training for cleanup, but he, like everyone else that we talked to, said they though they have signed up to help, no one has called them to service.
"I don't know how long I can hold onto my boat, my livelihood." Thuong, like many fishermen we talked to, had invested money in getting his boat ready for the season, doing repairs and getting it ready for an expected busy season—a season predicted to be the best since Hurricane Katrina.
"I've been working her for 20 years. Katrina wiped everything away, but, thank you God, my boat survived, even with some holes in it, but no water inside. It took me six months to fix it, and the Mennonites came and helped me."
"Please pray; we don't know how we can survive, but we'd like to help people get food, get seafood on their tables to eat. Now I'm stuck here, standing by, waiting to help."
"Like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved," said Rosina Philippe, paraphrasing Psalm 1:3 and Jeremiah 17:8.
Philippe fully embraces the culture she knows, embraces, supports and advocates for.
Sitting in her MDS-built house on Grand Bayou, accessible only by boat, she proudly exhibits her mother's day presents: three recycle bins, standing in her living room. But recycling, as noble as it is, is a far cry from the concerns she expresses quite vocally about the current crises of the April 20 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"They knew this could happen. Now, what do we do? We're eating our last little bowl of fresh shrimp—our mainstay. So now what, without our main food source, our seafood? We're going to have to find an expensive substitute for our regular food."
The oil spill has exacerbated the already difficult ecological and economical issues in the Gulf States, Philippe and others shared. Besides the ramifications of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as Gustav and Ike, there is the influx of cheap, imported seafood, ecological degradation of the marshes and the environment as a whole. Now whole communities are wondering whether their centuries-old lifestyles are threatened, and even destined for extinction.
"We haven't even scratched the surface of the outcome of this disaster," Philippe stated. "We have been in touch with those affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, 20 years ago, and they are still dealing with problems with their fisheries, their livelihoods. This now will impact our region for decades."
As her daughter Ani, her daughter's friend Rebecca, and neighbor Ruby Ancar (who also lives in an MDS rebuilt house) sat in her living room in Grand Bayou, Philippe and all in the room expressed their concern for an historic culture potentially being lost.
But it was not as simples as that. Other residents—workers, families and more—expressed their perspectives and worries.
According those interviewed, including local officials, the state of Louisiana provides a third of the fish (including fish, shrimp, oysters and crab) for the United States. Ironically, they also say they provide a third of the petroleum.
A typical refrain was how heartbreaking it all is. "The entire culture of coastal life here could be interrupted forever; we just don't know. Only God can see us through this," added Philippe. "There are reports, dire reports, and if what we hear and think is true, thousands and thousands of people, and all the other things that live here will be impacted for decades.
"Nobody asked us, the fishing, (shrimping, oyster and hunting people) before they did things to the environment, dredged the bayous, dug out passageways, built the levees, nobody asked us who have the traditional and hundreds of years of ecological and intimate knowledge about this place… But others have come into this place and impacted our lives, and now our lives are intersecting with hazards others brought in here without even asking us."
College-aged Ani chimed saying, "It's heartbreaking. It's going to destroy my home." She then defined home as including the marsh. Ani was able to fly over some of the spill area, and she said even without the oil spill, you can see the massive land loss the area is already suffering from.
Philippe added, "In our pursuit of gain and control of nature, our pursuit of profit, energy independence, in our quest we're just killing and destroying so much. There are different ways we could be doing this, and we could be doing different things. But the bottom line is all that seems to matter to so many. This is impacting us now, but later it will impact others, everyone."
"They knew this could happen," joined in Ancar. "Now what do we do? I'm eating my last little pack of shrimp, now what without my seafood, our food. We'll have to find substitutes for our regular food," food that was not harvested in the bayou, food that has to be purchased. But without the jobs, what?
"Shrimp, crab, oysters, fish—it's our food. We only supplement with food from the outside. I've been miserly with the little shrimp I have left," Philippe added.
"So is this a situation, with this spill, of the fox guarding the henhouse? Why don't they ask us what they should be considering? And, this will happen again, here, someplace else."
Virtually all of the fishermen, those who harvest fish, oysters, shrimp and crab, say that this season was going to be their first "clear" season since Hurricane Katrina. After Katrina, they were building up to a good season, getting boats ready, and seeding the oyster beds, ramping up for a good year. Last year the season bottomed out, they said, because of the "storm" of shrimp that came in from overseas, which bottomed out the Louisiana price of shrimp. "And now this," Philippe said, sharing the same sentiment everyone else was sharing.
"What little money people had, they invested in their boats," said Ancar. This was done "to help meet the needs of their families, and now they're even deeper in the hole."
"And don't forget Mississippi, Alabama, and even Florida," added Philippe. "This will impact them. It will impact the parish, the state and the nation. And we're not even learning from this… it's bigger than our small little community. It will affect our culture, our heritage, our food source, our recreation, how we provide for ourselves.
"Who will we become? We're a coastal village; we've been here hundreds and hundreds of years. This, I think, is the most serious disaster of all- crude is toxic. The dispersements are toxic. And you know, we'd rather be spared, but we don't want to send it off to anyone else, either."
Roland Reyes has been fishing all of his life. In "the Donut Shop" in Port Sulphur, with his friend "Flip," Reyes said, "I have a lot of knowledge of how to make a living on the water. I'm in my sixties, so now what else can I do? It's in my blood. But to be honest with you, I am still hoping for the best."
Another observation in these conversations is that this disaster puts "us fishermen in the same boat as the sports fishermen."
During and after these conversations, Unruh said MDS is asking, "how has this disaster harmed you? What can address that harm? And what is it MDS can do? Regardless of the kind of disaster, these types of questions guide the MDS response."
Steve Bledsoe, vice chair of the board for the Committee for Plaquemines Recovery said, "The important thing to know is that right now we're in meeting mode. There's no need for volunteers at this time. Our greatest need is protecting the environment, protecting and saving wildlife for now. This is not the job of a typical volunteer. People will need very specific and specialized training. CPR is meeting to see what they and our partners can put on the plate, as far as volunteers. And for now, I guess I'm the main point of contact." It was suggested that perhaps MDS volunteers could help host and cook for the specially trained volunteers." Otherwise, all agencies are essentially on standby.
Interesting, too, that in our conversation, Bledsoe said that the oil spill in another step in the overall marsh degradation, and that "the fishermen know the marshes better than anyone, but no one asked or is asking them what to do."
Unruh was on the phone with Plaquemines Parish leadership. An assistant to and spokesman for parish president Billy Nungesser is Benny Pucket, who told Unruh that at this point, no MDS or similar volunteers are needed, but that he'd call MDS first when and if there is a need.
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
1. Pray for people who live in communities affected by technology-caused disasters.
2. To help those affected by disasters you may, send gifts payable to your congregation marked for OGHS special fund Emergency USA: 2010 Gulf Oil Spill with the request they be sent through your Conference office on to Wider Church Ministries.
3. Send gifts, made out to Wider Church Ministries and marked in the memo portion OGHS special fund Emergency USA: 2010 Gulf Oil Spill to UCC Financial Services; Wider Church Ministries, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115.
4. Make a secure on-line donation Donate Now