Engulfed: What you should know, how you can help

Monday, July 19, 2010 | 5:49 p.m. CDT; updated 9:08 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 20, 2010

NEW ORLEANS — When Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser broke the news to a room full of fishermen that BP had successfully capped its out-of-control well, there was applause.

But there were no raucous cheers or whistles or hallelujahs; after all, the damage had been done. Capping the well at this stage was like successfully applying a tourniquet to a shooting victim who's lost a half gallon of blood and might still die.

The conclusion of the capping efforts coincide with the end of my time in Louisiana. Over the course of this week, I've reported on just a few of what must be thousands of stories of loss along the Gulf, a number that is bound to rise in the months ahead. I haven't been here long, but here's some of what I've observed:

  • Southern Louisianans are exceptionally resilient. As a group, Louisianans are pretty laid-back, but the fishermen and women I met in  Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes seem to lack any trace of self-pity.
  • That said, they're dealing with deeper issues than they want to admit. Mother Jones reported that domestic violence calls in Plaquemines on a recent weekend were more than three times the usual number. The same article detailed the strain that the spill had placed on the wives of affected fishermen. MU grad and Columbia Missourian alum Kate Schuman, who now works at the St. Bernard Project — an organization that helps rebuild homes and provides psychological counseling — says that many residents with acute mental health disorders (like bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia) have been deeply traumatized by the disasters.
  • But it could be worse. BP has been heaping jaw-dropping sums of money into the coast as if their offices were filled with giant stacks of cash. People generally seem to think that mediator Kenneth Feinberg will be fair in meting out payments from BP's $20 billion compensation fund, and the need for cleanup workers has helped temporarily offset the loss in fishing jobs.
  • Still, BP might not be able to pay its way out of this. BP's recovery slogan has been "We will make this right," a folksy mantra that has the twin qualities of sounding good while having the ring of impossibility. George Barisich, president of the United Commercial Fishermen's Association, pointed out that not all out-of-work fishermen were working with BP, and he also illustrated the kind of butterfly-effect disruption the spill would have on the economy, affecting not only fishermen, but distributors, grocers, restaurants and innkeepers. And even in the best-case scenario — if the fishing grounds in the Gulf eventually return to some semblance of normalcy, which is not as far-fetched as you might think — livelihoods have still been interrupted, and the course of entire lives has been changed, as was the case among fishermen in the 1989 Exxon-Valdez disaster. This hurts more than it would for workers in other industries; fishing is not a job, but a way of life.
  • People here are generally against the offshore-drilling moratorium. Even some fishermen, many of whom have worked for the oil industry previously. It's all about the jobs. Oil is a huge business down here, and if it's taken away, people don't know what would take its place.

So what can you do to help?

  • Kate Schuman, whom I mentioned before, says the St. Bernard Project has now expanded its services to provide assistance to people impacted by the oil spill, particularly fishermen's wives. You can earmark monetary donations (here) specifically for oil-spill related relief, and if you'd like to donate supplies for needy families instead — food stamps don't cover everything — e-mail and see if there's anything in need. (Full disclosure: Schuman is a friend. But from what I can tell, the organization seems pretty effective and has clout in the community.) You might also consider the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health, which has created a fund for grants to grassroots environmental organizations. The Dayton Foundation site also has a long list of Gulf-area charities.
  • If you'd like to give to a church, call the St. Patrick Catholic Church at (504) 564-6792 and ask if there any donations of money or supplies you can make to the needy in Plaquemines Parish. The church is closely tied to the community and has been home to some relief operations related to the oil cleanup.
  • If you want to take in an abandoned pet, the Humane Society says shelters in both Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes do out-of-state adoptions.

I hope the reporting — and the tips — have been helpful. I've learned a lot about a unique part of the country and been humbled by the patience, kindness and openness of all the people who took the time to speak with me. I wish them good luck for the hard road ahead; unfortunately, it seems likely they'll need it.

— Matt

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Gianna Volpe July 20, 2010 | 9:32 a.m.

Seems like we're all going to need some of that good luck

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