We’re standing on a very remote dock on Grand Bayou, a chain of wetlands interspersed with human made channels where natural gas lines run out to rigs in the open Gulf. These pipes lay on the mud, running some four miles out to sea to their source and inland to a storage facility where the fuel is collected and brought to market.
Once again, standing in the remnants of architecture destroyed by Katrina, we are overwhelmed by the true identity of this place. Hurricane Katrina is like the B.C. and A.D. of the Gulf Coast, a place and time that demarcates two distinct realities.
Some residents hate BP, some think they’re doing a good job (to varying degrees), but everyone I’ve spoken to has three things in common: they have an uncanny sense of place, they have no self-pity, and the aftermath of Katrina affects their lives everyday.
By the water, there is a basketball hoop with no backboard but a perfectly intact net. The court below isn’t visible – it’s buried by mud and vegetation overgrowth. We’d hoped to meet a fisherman from a local tribe, Jeremiah, with whom we’d made arrangements with to take us out into the affected areas in his boat. Crabbing is closed in the open bays but not in these fingered channels. But Jeremiah, we learn, is already out. No boat equals no story.
Serendipitously, another reporter I’m with finds Brian Gainey, a 20-year-old third generation crabber who moors his boat here. For a little gas money, we can get a ride. He’s with his high school friend Carol Hart, who serves as crew, and he’s going to check on his crab traps laid a few days ago. Brian operates about 500 traps when in full swing, and he drives nearly four hours each way to get here from his home in Mississippi. His workday begins at 4 a.m. and doesn’t end until 8 p.m.
His boat moors for free because his family’s name is respected by the residents of this small, tribal wetland community. But now, his work is severely limited because the outer bays are contaminated. As we tour the marshes with their egrets and herons, we see firsthand why people live here. It’s beautiful. Hot, and beautiful.
Crabs, Brian says, avoid polluted water and have moved into the channels where the oil hasn’t saturated. And though he’s catching, the market rate for his effort has dropped considerably. “Gulf Seafood,” is hardly a selling point with seafood buyers these days. Menus all over the world are being reprinted. Safety is a topic for another post pending, but the perception in the market is that it’s tainted.
But back on the bayou, Brian’s working. His father isn’t; he’s instead accepting the BP checks for out-of-work fisherman, some $5,000 a month. Brian explains that he can generate this amount – gross – in three days of crabbing at pre-spill market prices. Late summer is prime crabbing, and Brian can easily pull in 20 thousand a month. Though he’s thankful to BP for his dad’s payments, it’s unclear how long they’ll last. They are only promised through August and he doesn’t know if they’ll continue beyond that. No one knows. Unknowing is the sentiment that prevails everywhere.
Brian is angry about the situation and he blames BP for all of the problems affecting his way of life, but he also believes that BP is doing everything they can right now. That they’re taking care of business.
This is the crux of life here: The entire economics of this region, with the exception of tourism (which is utterly destroyed), hangs in the balance of a healthy seafood economy and a healthy oil economy. But depending on whom you ask, BP is either a savior for giving jobs, or the devil for destroying the sea. Brian is somewhere in between. He doesn’t fish because he doesn’t have other options, but like most fishermen I’ve talked to, he does this because he loves it.