Since April, when the Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico 50 miles off the Louisiana coast — killing 11 rig workers and triggering the greatest oil spill in U.S. history — Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans has responded to the economic, emotional and spiritual needs of the oyster and fishing families most immediately impacted by the environmental disaster.
The oil spill crisis comes nearly five years after Hurricane Katrina hit the region on Aug. 29, 2005, and destroyed most of the human possessions of those fishing families who eke out a living along the south Louisiana coast and in the marshes.
The archdiocese established five crisis centers at churches in Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Jefferson and Orleans parishes (counties) to provide help to families with emergency food distribution, financial assistance to keep up with utility and rent payments, case management and crisis counseling.
In the trenches
Here, from the front lines, are the stories of three Catholic Charities social workers who have battled the emotional effects of the spill and have tried to offer hope in the face of an uncertain future.
Not unlike the cleanup workers with absorbent booms and skimmers, these social workers are in the trenches. Their stories are told in their own words.
Peter Finney Jr. is the executive editor of the Clarion Herald in New Orleans. For more information on the relief efforts of Catholic Charities New Orleans, visit www.ccano.org.
I worked for 39 years with the New Orleans Fire Department until I joined Catholic Charities as a crisis counselor in 2006. Part of my job was to talk to hundreds of first responders after (Hurricanes) Katrina and Gustav to see how they were doing. They could see our genuineness, because they could look in our eyes and see the compassion and care and concern we had for them and the situation. In a lot of ways, these fishermen are the same way. They know who’s genuine and who’s not. It takes a little time to gain their trust, just like it did with the first responders. But if they know we’re not going anywhere, they begin to open up.
We’re seeing marriage problems, anxiety, depression, lack of sleep, increase in alcohol consumption — all the things you would expect. What they are going through is normal because of an abnormal situation. These people are used to fixing things on their own, and they can’t fix this. This is exactly like first responders.
Most of them are worried about the unknown, what the future holds for them. They don’t know how they are going to pay the bills. They may be going out fishing, but what happens if no one buys the seafood because they don’t know whether it’s edible or not?
I speak to maybe 50 people a day. Usually I break the ice with some casual conversation like, “How are you doing? Where are you from? I’m from Catholic Charities.” That leads to other things and they start opening up. Because I was a first responder, I’ve got compassion. That’s my line of work. That’s the nature of the job. And, believe me, first responders are the last ones to ask for help.
I think we’ll be dealing with this for years. They’ve been traumatized with Katrina, and they aren’t over that yet, and now they’ve got this. It’s so rewarding to help these people out, and we can’t pull away from these communities. We have to stay visible just in case somebody is having a bad day or has bad thoughts and needs to talk.
Even though I don’t speak Vietnamese, I’ve worked with the Vietnamese fishing community in New Orleans East. They may have a different culture, but these fishermen have all been impacted in the same way. We’ve used some student volunteers to help translate, and now I have become familiar with them, and they’ve gotten familiar with me.
In the beginning, when people don’t know you and are from a different culture, they tend to clamp down and don’t want to express what they’re really feeling. They would say they don’t speak any English, but after a few days and weeks they got comfortable and started to speak to me with a little English!
They are telling me they would just love to go back to work. They hate the fact that they’re not working and that they go home and their children are looking at them, day in and day out. When the kids see their demeanor, they are picking it up. I had one little girl tell me she’ll be so glad to go back to school. This summer has not been any fun for her. What kid do you know looks forward to going back to school?
The Vietnamese are a very self-reliant culture. In the beginning, most of the females I had a chance to talk to told me they were dealing with a double disaster — first Katrina and then the oil spill. They were overwhelmed, and they were crying. The men tended to hold things in, but I’ve been able to counsel the men as well.
I’ve tried to give them ways to channel all of their emotions. I’ve suggested to them writing a journal. I’ve given them a pad and pen and told them to write out their feelings. In the morning they can write down three realistic goals for the day and then try to achieve those goals.
Even with the oil well capped, there’s still anxiety. It’s almost like they’re afraid to have that hope that they might be back fishing in two months.
During the last three months, there have been more questions than answers. There’s so much fear of the unknown and what’s going to happen to the fishing industry.
There are people and a culture at stake, as well as a way of life. That has caused some anxiety and some difficulties in relationships, especially for those with spouses and children. There’s also been some increase in substance abuse, and people have had to change their daily activities because everything is not normal.
You have to remember that part of the economy in the last several months has been sustained by BP paying for the oil spill cleanup through its “vessels of opportunity” program. That’s brought some money in to these families. But now we’re hearing general comments that if the cleanup efforts are going to wane, there will be a further economic downturn. Even if they rig their boats to go fishing again, now they’ve got to worry if there’s going to be a market for their fish. They don’t know if this is going to be a long-term problem.
I think we’re going to have some long-term mental health issues. People have barely healed from Katrina, and now they’ve had to deal with another tragedy. It’s been difficult because these people are very hardworking and dedicated, but now they need help. Catholic Charities has tried to meet them with open arms and tell them we’re here to help with their basic needs and bring them closer to their spirituality. We’re not going away.
It’s been particularly difficult on the children. They’ve had to hear discussions about money difficulties, and now school is starting and people need money for shoes, supplies and uniforms, and now parents have to get their kids to and from school.
Katrina was devastating to the region, but we had a structured response from the federal government. For the oil spill, we don’t have that structured response from the government as far as social services are concerned, so the nonprofits and the faith-based communities have been on the front lines. At four months, people are a little weary.