When Hurricane Katrina clobbered the Gulf Coast in 2005, women bore the brunt of the chaos that ensued, facing sexual violence and abuse at the hands of relatives and strangers. It was out of that devastating period that Coastal Women for Change was formed, an organization devoted to bringing women’s voices to reconstruction efforts.
Founded in 2006 by a hairdresser and community activist named Sharon Hanshaw, CWC organized community forums, drawing attention to the need for childcare facilities in east and west Biloxi, and calling for an increased police presence in certain areas to protect the elderly living alone in trailers. “We believe there is value in coming together as a community, because some issues can seem insurmountable when considered alone, but when you get together with others, there is strength in those numbers,” reads the CWC web site’s About Us section.
Now, in the wake of the British Petroleum oil spill, CWC is contending with a new challenge: how to bring disaster relief to people who are already scarred by disaster. In an interview with American Prospect, Sharon Hanshaw describes the impact that the spill has had on the Gulf region’s collective psyche. “I can’t describe it. It’s like a death sentence or something,” she says. “When we think of any type of devastation, we think of Katrina automatically because people still live in the cottages. Others don’t fully understand what people who live in it feel; they think people should be over that. But if you don’t have a house, and you’re still paying for a mortgage, but it’s only a slab there…that gives you a sense of hopelessness.”
As the spill creeps closer to the coastline, Hanshaw’s biggest fear is that it will decimate the Gulf’s commercial fishing industry, leaving the 13,000 people employed by fisheries and restaurants out of work. “If it comes, you won’t have any jobs,” she says. “You would have to think about, what could we do besides clean up? What else can people do? They really want to know what their career is. They want work for a paycheck. If you can’t fish now, it’s like, OK, let’s clear the debris.”
But organizing the fishing community to prepare for a potential disaster isn’t as simple as it sounds. “A majority of fishermen are Vietnamese, but there are black and white fishermen. But they’re having their own meetings, and it’s like, ‘Oh, here we go.’ It’s redundant to be separate, and you got the same plight here. I see it all the time,” says Hanshaw. “All these different constituents are having meetings. They’re having meetings separately, and I’m like, do you know that you all have the same plight? But that’s our problem. We don’t know how to think that way.”
For now, CWC is acting as an information line from the Environmental Protection Agency and British Petroleum to local fisheries, keeping Gulf Coast fishers apprised of changes during the oil spill. “We’re just trying to not put fear in people. We’re trying to stay positive and hopeful, but we still know that we should be active in this.”
Image: Jay Fox Photos