By Peter Finney Jr.
Hurricane Katrina, the perfect storm, arrived in August 2005 and, in many ways, has never left the people of south Louisiana.
Now, another perfect storm — million of gallons of oil spewing for more than a month from an April 20 oil rig blowout 50 miles offshore — is lurking below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico and threatening the livelihood, resilience and faith of south Louisiana fishing families who only recently had begun to regain their sea legs after Katrina.
With BP, the oil company that was leasing the rig, estimating that the damaged well may be leaking until August, the oil already dumped into the sea had made its way into the south Louisiana marshes and onto barrier islands, imperiling the estuaries that have made the state such a seafood paradise.
Beyond paying fishermen for lost wages, BP gave $1 million to the Archdiocese of New Orleans May 18 — $750,000 to Catholic Charities for direct assistance such as gift cards to grocery stores, case management and counseling, and $250,000 to Second Harvest Food Bank for emergency food boxes.
Catholic Charities has established five emergency centers at local churches to help fishing families cope with the crisis — St. Bernard Church in St. Bernard, St. Thomas Church in Pointe a la Hache, St. Patrick Church in Port Sulphur, St. Anthony Church in Lafitte and Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in New Orleans East.
The grant will help fund those outreach services for three months, and the likelihood is the program would be extended if the impact of the oil spill grows as expected.
Perhaps more pressing than the economic needs of fishermen are their often-hidden emotional and psychological needs, especially with the oil spill following so closely behind Katrina’s destruction, said Shirley Lachmann, director of the community centers for Catholic Charities.
“Actually, we are seeing people who are almost having flashbacks to Katrina,” she said. “The stress level is enormously high. There are people in St. Bernard and lower Plaquemines parishes who were just getting their heads out of the water, looking forward to a great season. All of a sudden, their feet are knocked out from under them. Several are having thoughts of suicide. We have the clinical counselors down there.”
Commercial fishermen stereotypically have an independent streak and do not like asking anyone for help, said St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro, who worked for 20 years as a family and marriage counselor while also teaching at the former Archbishop Hannan High School in Meraux.
“I really believe that in this case the resilience of some of these guys actually works against them,” he said. “They’re at the point where they start to believe they can handle anything, and when the reality starts to set in, they start thinking, ‘Well, maybe we just can’t handle everything. We might need some help.’ And that’s where the conflict begins, and that’s where people begin to lose hope.”
“To me, that is the most critical feature of this whole thing,” Taffaro added. “If people lose hope all over again, I’m not sure that we keep them engaged. I think they run for the hills, and either drop out altogether or move away.”
Father Gerard Stapleton, pastor of St. Patrick Church in Port Sulphur, has struggled to express the emotions his fishing families are experiencing now that the tidal wave of oil has found its way into the marshes.
“You’ve worked all your life, 70 hours a week, and now you’re being told you can’t work, you can’t use your boat, and you’re reduced to coming over here for a $100 voucher,” Father Stapleton said, tearing up. “These people haven’t asked for anything in their lives. If they wanted food on the table and they hadn’t a penny or a nickel in their house, they went out and hunted or fished for it.
“You’re talking about the Vietnamese and the Croatians who have never asked for help, not from the government, not from anyone. After Katrina, they put their equipment back together. Now they’ve got a boat with a perfect engine with full fuel and perfect nets, and they’re told they can’t do anything. This is devastating for most of them.”
At the Catholic Charities center at St. Thomas Church in Pointe a la Hache, Bonnie Duplessis, who was hired through the BP grant to serve as a liaison between the fishing community of lower Plaquemines and Catholic Charities, said she knows the anxiety level has never been higher for fisherman. Her husband, Ronnie, trawls for shrimp and harvests oysters in season, but now is shut down.
“It could be the rest of my husband’s fishing career — that’s what he’s worried about,” Duplessis said. “He’s going to be 65. This was probably going to be a very promising shrimp season. We had been suffering with so much imported shrimp flooding our market. The Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board has been getting the word out how much better wild-caught Louisiana shrimp are for you healthwise. We were getting our highest prices since Katrina.”
“Our worst fear is that the oil is going to get in here and destroy the wetlands and destroy the estuaries and destroy an entire culture and an entire way of life,” Duplessis said. “I’m praying. I know there are bacteria in the water that can consume oil. The marsh would be better off if they didn’t try to clean it up, because trying to clean it up might do more damage than the oil itself. Our marsh is so delicate. We can’t stand to lose any more marsh.”
Archbishop Gregory Aymond thanked BP for its financial commitment to the archdiocesan outreach efforts, and he has asked for prayers that the oil will not wreak long-term havoc.
“We know that the people of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Grand Isle and New Orleans East are people who persevere and have been through so many difficult and challenging times and have borne this cross before,” he said. “We’re grateful for the gift because we want to be in the front lines and con-tinue in the front lines for a longer period of time.”
Feeding the anxiety of fishing families is the uncertainty.
“Not knowing, not knowing,” said Helen Saucier, a parishioner at St. Patrick Church. “It could be Katrina all over again. Once the oil hits the root system, that’s it. Ever have a plant and put oil on it? Can you save it? No.”
Rather than preach, Father Stapleton says he prefers to listen to his people and gain strength from their simple faith. He told OSV he heard the best sermon of his life from a fisherman in a coffee shop.
“He told me, ‘The God who looked after us yesterday is the God who looks after us today, and he will also be with us tomorrow, and he will bring us through, just as he brought us through Katrina,’” Father Stapleton said. “I think that’s the best advice I have to offer to the people — that God has not abandoned us. In the midst of all this, ultimately, what God looks for in his people is faithfulness in all situations.”
Peter Finney Jr. is the executive editor of The Clarion Herald in New Orleans, La.
Since the beginning of May, nearly 5,000 individuals in the south Louisiana fishing community have benefitted from emergency assistance from Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans.
One of the important lessons learned by those responding to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Hurricane Gustav in 2008 was the need to have more baby supplies on hand, such as expensive diapers and baby formula, to help young families, said Father John Arnone, pastor of St. Bernard Church.
Also helping Catholic Charities respond to the spill is the simple fact that, unlike in the aftermath of Katrina, social workers and case managers are not struggling to rebuild their own homes while helping others.
“I can handle this better because, along with the case workers, I’m not trying to rebuild my house at the same time,” said Shirley Lachmann, director of community centers for Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans. “Back then we were feeling it on both fronts. We have a whole team in place, and we’re ready to go as soon as anything happens.”
Lachmann said the experience of helping people recover from three major hurricanes in the last five years prompted case managers to complete brief mental health assessments of the people who come in for emergency relief, which has surfaced underlying needs.
“Our case managers administer stress and trauma assessments — it only takes about 10 minutes — and once they are done, we can turn the assessments over to clinical counselors, and they do the interpretation and follow-up,” Lachmann said.
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