Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Day on the Docks

Venice, LA
June 25, 2010

It’s a hot afternoon on the crowded docks of the Venice Marina. To kill time, boat owner Rennie Buras and his crew cut up and laugh while waiting with the other boats, all packed with boom and oil mops, for the green light from BP to set off for Grand Isle to help with the clean up. 

The guys tell me BP makes everyone take tests before shipping out, which sounds reasonable enough to ensure safety. But the questions  - True or false, if you get dizzy, drink water? True or false, if it looks like your hand might get pinched, should you move it? -  seem ludicrous to veteran fishermen.  And half the fishermen speak only Vietnamese and don’t understand the questions in the first place, so the proctor issuing the exam finally screams the correct answer!

BP’s work instructions also seem silly to the men. Work 20 minutes, rest for 40. Don’t lift more than 40 pounds. Child’s play for these pros. 

They’ve been ready since Tuesday. It’s Friday and still they wait. Three men will live and work on this boat for the next three weeks. It’s tight—three bunk beds, a sink and a stovetop, but no one complains about the close quarters, only that the whole process is so disorganized and slow. BP promised to provide food and supplies, but as the wait drags on two of the fishermen make last minute runs for more cigarettes.

A shrimper on the docks tells me that it was slow after Hurricane Ike but that the season after Katrina was one of his best. This season was shaping up to be great too. Now he and his son, an oysterman, are both working for BP as boat captains in the cleanup effort. He’d rather be shrimping, but wants to get what he can from BP while it lasts. Who knows, he wonders, BP may quit paying, they may go bankrupt. Also, while the clean up work may last six months or 
longer, who knows when fishing will begin again. For now, he’ll start saving for the time after BP’s gone and no one’s paying lost wages. And, of course, keep on waiting. 
-Mary Clayton Carl

The World was his Oyster

Belle Chasse, LA
June 25, 2010

Highway 23 is familiar ground to Rennie Buras. “I’ve gone around the world so many times on that highway,” says the Belle Chasse attorney, who makes the long drive to destinations south over 100 times a year. In addition to his job with the public defender’s office, Buras manages roughly 2000 acres of oyster bed leases in Empire, Buras, and Wilkinson Bay that require his attention and oversight. The spill has closed the beds, but the highway still beckons. Today he’s headed down to the chaotic docks in Venice where one of his three boats, the New York, is being prepared to head out to Barataria Bay to collect oil as part of BP’s Vessels of Opportunity program. “They’re giving you an opportunity to work for them because they took away your way of life. What idiot made this up I have no idea.”

Buras has seen much more of the world than the stretch of Highway 23 from Belle Chasse to land’s end. He is a graduate of Loyola University and George Washington University law school and he spent a year abroad in Madrid, Spain. But he knew the wanderlust would eventually lead him home. “It’s just kind of in your blood,” he says. “My father was an oysterman, and his father. I don’t know how many generations we go back. Five would be a conservative estimate.”

The life of an oysterman is a good one, Buras explains. Good money, no bosses, no formal education required. And then there are the surroundings. “I think a sunrise on the bayou is more beautiful than in Hawaii,” he says. All that’s gone for now. “People are here because they want to be. There’s no Disney, no casinos. The two industries here, seafood and oil, have suffered. There’s nothing else.”

Frustrated and depressed with the failed attempts to stop the oil flow, Buras blames both BP and the government. “We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t plug a hole?” he asks. But he’s angriest about the government’s missed opportunities to protect the coast earlier through restoration. His father and grandfather literally watched the barrier beaches disappear. “I only saw my grandfather cry once, but he would be crying right now.” Buras’s father, who died in 1999, wanted to be cremated and have his ashes sprinkled over the bayou. He didn’t do it because his grandfather protested.  But what if that was now, he wonders. “What would I do? Sprinkle his ashes over oil?”
-Claire Layrisson
Photo: Mary Clayton Carl

Monday, June 28, 2010

Last Trawl

Empire, LA
June 10, 2010

The Gulf of Mexico has always been the playground of Brandy Phal and Lyna Vu, but that playground is shrinking daily with the encroaching scope of the oil spill. The eleven year old and her six-year-old sister are used to spending days and nights on end on the water, where shrimping is a way of life filled with fun, toil, and a lot of good eating. It’s a family affair and the girls, with their two brothers and two other sisters, help their mother, father and grandmother with the nets, sorting the shrimp, cleaning the family’s two boats and anything else that needs to be done. “I love to do stuff on the water,” says Brandy. “It’s work, but it’s fun.” The girls, who are American-born and whose parents are from Vietnam, go to school in Alabama. But when the season begins, they board their trawlers and follow where the shrimp lead them. Of late, that’s to Empire, Louisiana, where a small patch on the east side of the Mississippi River remains open to fishing. The girls are taking a break as their mother and grandmother, who shade themselves with wide-brimmed straw hats and speak little English, unload their haul at the dock. They haven’t seen any oil yet, although they’re quite aware of its sinister presence. It’s an almost constant topic of conversation between the adults, they say. What’s changed most to them is that the water’s former vastness seems severely restricted since the spill, cramped with multiple vessels competing for the same catch as federal and state closures increase. The sisters both want to be shrimpers when they grow up, and can hardly imagine any other options. “I don’t know what we’d do if there’s no shrimping season,” says Brandy with a shrug. “Maybe I could paint people’s fingernails. What’s that called?  
Oh yeah, a manicurist.”

-Claire Layrisson

Damn BP!

Photo: Mary Clayton Carl

Empire Falling

Empire, LA

June 10, 2010

“I was born and raised in surroundings and atmosphere most people can only dream of,” says E.J. Otero, the dock manager of Ocean Shrimp LLC, which is nestled in a backwater alongside the Bay Adams bridge in Empire, Louisiana. “You just wake up one morning and everything you know is gone.” Gone since the oil spill is 80 percent of his business, buying shrimp and packing them in trailers to be hauled to processing plants. Not only are there fewer places to shrimp, but many of the shrimpers are using their boats to help however they can to contain the oil. When he first heard about the disaster, Otero thought it wouldn’t affect the business, that it would be quickly closed and everything would be fine. Now he waits, living day to day with great apprehension over the increasing closure of viable places to shrimp. “This is pushing all the boats into one area, they’re corralled in one spot and wiping the shrimp out.”

The grandson and son of fishermen and a former fisherman himself, Otero has been running the dock here for 30 years. “Where do I go to find a job at 59?” he laments. “This is what I do. This is what I know. This is what I
want to do.”  He wonders about the long-term effects of the disaster, and whether there will be a shrimping season next year – or even in ten. He goes up the food chain of all the animals that will be harmed by the contamination of the wetlands, even the alligators who eat the birds who eat the fish who …and on and on. “To have everything become a black cloud,” he says, “I feel cheated out of the rest of my life. With no light at the end of the tunnel, they might as well close the door on Southern Louisiana. Because that’s what it’s all about: sportsman’s paradise.”

-Claire Layrisson

Cartoon Credit: Brigid Viguerie