GRAND ISLE, La. — Sybil Navarre leaned against the building housing her flea-market business, which is usually a beehive of activity on a sunny Saturday morning.
But not anymore. She peered down a narrow, desolate Louisiana Highway 1, which ends literally in the Gulf of Mexico at this onetime summer resort.
“I’ve lived in this town all my life, 63 years,” she said. “And I have never seen it like this: dead. It used to be bumper-to-bumper traffic on this highway on a Saturday morning. Businesses didn’t have enough parking space. Look at it now! I could lie down in the street and sleep and wouldn’t have to worry about being run over. Two of my neighbors have closed up their businesses and two more have closed just on Saturday. All because of that oil leak out there! All because of that BP. You can count on it … this way of life, this Cajun way of life is gone forever. South Louisiana may just be gone forever!”
As each day passes, more and more people are agreeing with Navarre.
Since the BP well blew out, killing 11 workers in mid-April, countless businesses have closed, natives and longtime residents have moved away and BP has met with failure after failure in trying to stop the nearly 75,000 gallons of oil that pour each day from the deep water well one mile down into the Gulf and onto the shores of the entire Gulf Coast.
A community on edge
“I’m here working for my parishioners 24/7 since this tragedy,” said Father Michael Tran, pastor of Our Lady of the Isle Church, whose front door is 500 yards from the beaches of Grand Isle and the Gulf of Mexico. “Nothing has gone untouched. It’s affected everything. Where I used to have 250-300 people for each of our Masses, now I get maybe 70 or so, if we’re lucky. No tourists come here any longer. There is nothing to come for. And the Louisiana people who used to come down for the summer to fish, they just don’t come. The motels on the beach are now filled with people who have come to help clean up the mess.”
The parish is working with Catholic Charities to provide people with gas cards, food vouchers and prescriptions. But the needs go beyond such physical necessities, Father Tran told OSV.
“The anxiety and the depression has set in. The stress. I have a psychiatrist coming in each day to meet with parishioners for counseling,” he said.
“Some of the people have expressed serious threats of suicide. I, too, am on edge all the time. Very stressful. I talk to the psychiatrist every week.”
He joked about his taking it out on his secretary, Tina Rabalais. The two laughed briefly, then Rabalais told OSV of living in a trailer for two years while a new home was being built. She and her husband moved into the home last January.
“But since this spill, he’s lost his job,” she said. “Now, it looks like we’re going to move back to Texas. God, how I loved it here. But what can a person do?”
Years of recovery ahead
“People in Minnesota and Iowa just can’t grasp how horrifying this is,” Father Tran told OSV. “They just don’t know. This is monumental. It will affect the entire nation. I’m sure of that. Maybe the entire world before it’s all done.”
Bishop Sam Jacobs, whose Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, La., is taking the brunt of the oil that is coming ashore, including the attendant job losses, business closings and anxieties that has come with it, agreed.
“The impact of this oil spill will be felt by our people for a long, long time,” he said. “But our [Catholic] Church will do all it can to meet the needs of the people. In addition to all of the work being done here by Catholic Charities, I have set up a disaster relief fund to receive donations and to channel these [monies] to those people in need. A major foundation has just sent a sizable check.”
Bishop Jacobs also knows that sometimes today’s headlines of tragedies can become tomorrow’s faded memories. When he thinks of church and community efforts, he emphasizes that he is talking about “years” and not “months.”
“My prayer is that the nation does not forget us once the media moves on like was done with [Hurricanes] Gustav and Ike,” he said. “We will still be dealing with the aftermath of this disaster for a long time, and we need the prayers and support of people around the country.”
A way of life lost
Gordon Wadge, co-president of Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of New Orleans, agrees that many around the nation cannot grasp the devastating and long-term impact of the spill, even if efforts to cap the runaway well are successful with a diversion well that is expected to become operable in August.
“We meet every Monday and every Thursday with our people out there in the field,” he said. “Sometimes it seems we’re everyplace at once: counseling, vouchers, case management, but I am so proud of our people and the effort they have put into helping others through this. Like Bishop Jacobs, it is my prayer that people don’t forget about this once the well is capped. In some ways that will be just the beginning. So much will have been lost by then. It’s not like living in Port Sulphur or Pointe a la Hache [towns upriver from the Gulf] where if you can’t fish for a living, you just go out and get another job. There are no other jobs. The fishing industry IS it! There’s so much at stake here.”
Cal Kingsmill, a master carver of duck decoys and a lifelong hunter in the bayous, knows how catastrophic the BP oil spill is — and will be for many years into the future.
“A thing we don’t hear about in all of this [is that] migration season is right around the corner,” Kingsmill told OSV. “We’re going to have all those Canadian geese coming in. And other birds migrating here also. We have prime nesting grounds here. They’re going to land in that goop and end up just like the pelicans and ducks and egrets we see every day out there: black with oil and flopping around and dying from suffocation. It’s going to be a long, long time before this thing is over.”
George Gurtner writes from Louisiana.
Growing Anxiety (sidebar)
Last month’s suicide of a charter boat captain in Gulf Shores, Ala., has raised the awareness of the mental health consequences of the oil spill.
“Folks have a growing sense of anxiety,” said Rob Gorman, director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, La., during a conference call with reporters arranged by the Catholic Coalition for Climate Change. “These mental health issues are going to become much more prevalent.”
— From CNS report