These selected passages are from transcripts of several people I’ve talked to on the Gulf Coast. They’re lightly edited for clarity. The conversations occurred during May 7-9, 2010. —Carl Safina
A wealthy businessman from New Orleans who loves the bayou and loves his fishing, says:
“We were just coming back from the stigma and aftermath of Katrina. We’d just gotten a great glow going. We’d been hit with the country’s worst natural disaster. Now we’re getting hit with the worst man-made disaster.”
“Everyone’s going to be affected to some degree. It is just starting to dawn on folks what this oil might mean. It’s the rest of my lifetime, anyway.”
• • •
A man from the sheriff’s department who was guarding the road in Shell Beach, Louisiana, said:
“Once that oil comes in, the people here ain’t gonna work for a long time. Long-term effects, there’s nobody that can estimate it.”
“It’s not just about scoopin’ it off the water. What you see ain’t what you got. What you see is a fraction of what’s going on underwater. The real big damage is happenin’ underneath. What you can’t see. All your fish, shrimp, crabs—. They don’t know what they got goin’ on down there.”
“They don’t have enough booms in the world to protect the marsh. And once it gets into the marsh you’re screwed, because this ain’t like a beach where you can pick up the sand and put new sand. It’s gonna stay there for years. And every time it rains, every time you get a higher-than-normal tide, we’ll get a sheen. And every time we get a sheen, then they’ll shut fishin’. So, this’ll be an ongoing problem for years to come.
This’ll make Katrina look like a bad day. Because, Katrina did what it did. Then you picked up and got back to your way of life. Even though it can never be what it was before.
But this, I mean—it’s disheartening to say it—but I think the parish has pretty much had it. You take the economical loss from the seafood business, all these taxes that all these buyers pay to the parish, these fishermen makin’ money, spendin’ money. That’s gone. There’s nothing that’s gonna replace that income. I mean, you probably had ten, twenty thousand sacks of oysters goin’ outta this place a day. There’s one crab buyer I know, he probably averages thirty, forty thousand pounds a day when the crabs are running good. Sad part is, this is the time of year when they’re runnin’. That’s just one buyer. See what I’m sayin’? How do you replace that?
A lot of people don’t realize the economics. The average working fisherman that fishers hard, I’d say they average at least a hundred thousand dollars a year, gross income. Of course, they got expenses. But BP can’t replace their income; that’s not possible. BP can’t keep payin’ these guys forever. Not the rest of their lives. Not what they made. They can’t keep that up.
And recreational. This is a fishing paradise. In Florida, you catch four of five fish, you had a good day. You come here, you can catch 25 speckled trout and 25 redfish on a given day. So people come here. How many places here sell bait. Sell fishing line. These boats. See what I’m sayin? That’s all gone.
You look around at these weekend fishing houses. This is serious money. The average place back here, they got $500,000 invested. They’re not gonna come invest that kind of money when they can’t catch fish. What are you gonna build a fish camp for, if you can’t use it. There’s people had camps on order; they already cancelled. A personal friend of mine, he had the plans, everything. He cancelled it already. And now his lot’s gonna be worth nothin’. He’s got $400,000 invested in a place he won’t be able to give away.
There’s no way to measure the impact but impact’s gonna be just unbelievable. I work for the sheriff’s office. Our payroll comes from taxes. If you don’t have tax-base—. We already got about a million dollar a year deficit we’re hopin’ to turn around. That’s still part of the after-effects of Katrina. A lot of people had to leave the parish. People aren’t spendin’ money. We have very little sales tax. We had all these Family Dollar stores. People say, ‘Oh, if you get a Wal-Mart—.’ That’s not the boon people think it is. People got the same amount of money to spend no matter how many stores you have. You can have all the stores you want. What I’m sayin’ is, we can’t draw from anywhere any more. The whole surrounding area was devastated. Like, the whole Ninth Ward, it’s depressed all through there. Before, a lot of the people came from the Ninth Ward to shop. A lot of our sales tax came from people in the Ninth Ward. We just don’t have that anymore.
So, I don’t know what’s gonna happen. Unless some miracle happens. I don’t think people get how bad it’s gonna be. It’s gonna cripple us here in Saint Bernard Parish. But it goes much further than Saint Bernard. It ain’t gonna be good.”
• • •
At the end of the road, overlooking the marsh and channel, I talked to a guy who was sitting in his car next to a memorial to local victims of Katrina.
“There’s no good side to this,” He said. “To see a way of life destroyed—. The small-timers in the seafood business, people make fun of them because they don’t know the answers to intelligent questions. But they’re scientists at their own jobs. Maybe they don’t know the name of the First Lady of the United States, but that’s not what they care about. What they care about is that their motor starts in the morning and that they’ll go out, and go to work.”
• • •
“We outta work,” says James Keiff, an oysterman for 35 years, from the deck of his boat. “It could be two months; it could be two years. The worst is the not-knowing. The stress is in the not-knowing. Katrina came and went. We knew what to do. If the oil stays offshore, we could be OK. Big ‘if.’”