Louisiana communities brace for oil’s impact

The sign outside Hosanna Church in
Marrero said it all: “Pray for a solution to the oil leak problem.’’

The church sits on Barataria
Boulevard, which is the road to Jean Lafitte.

It is in this lower Jefferson
village, home to some of the nation’s richest waters for shellfish and where
most families are tied to the seafood industry, that a lot praying is going on
as a sunken oil rig continues to spew hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil
daily into the Gulf of Mexico.

The folks who live here fear that
the Deepwater Horizon disaster is Armageddon — a catastrophe that threatens
their way of life and that of their families for generations to come.

“Katrina and Gustav was nothing
compared to this,’’ said Lafitte native Wynell Martin, who volunteers at the
Louisiana Marine Fisheries Museum. “If that oil gets into our waters, that’s
it. We’re done.’’

Sure, the people of Lafitte-Crown
Point-Barataria, like those in lower Plaquemines Parish and Grand Isle, are
survivors, having come back after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike. Lafitte
area residents had to rebuild their homes a second time after Ike. In 2005,
Rita, not Katrina, swamped the community. Three years later, the scene was repeated
with Ike.

But the community that so quickly
pulled out its hip waders to clean up and come back after the 2008 storm is on
edge as it waits to see where the oil will wash ashore.

“The people are scared,’’ said
Lafitte resident Pamela Encalade. “It’s their livelihood.’’

Even the wildlife is sensing a
change in their environment. The numbers of dolphins swimming in the local
bayou have increased since the April 20 spill, Martin and Encalade said. It
wasn’t unusual to see a dolphin before then, but now, it seems like a common
occurrence.

“They’re running,’’ Encalade said.
“Where are they going to go? I talked to one man. The shrimp are running away
from the oil.’’

The spill’s timing couldn’t have
been worse for fishers who must make their money during the short fishing
season that begins in May. In the offseason, they work odd jobs in the hopes of
making just enough to carry them through to the next season.

With another potential disaster as
his doorstep, Jean Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner agreed that his community is more
than anxious. But the anxiety has spurred a corps of residents who gladly pitch
in to do anything from unloading 18-wheeler trucks with boom to making food for
the workers. Kerner and Jefferson Parish officials, with help from the Shaw
Group, have developed a plan to lay 100,000 feet of absorbent boom and another
40,000 feet of hard boom should the fragile marsh be threatened. About 40
fishers are on standby waiting for orders to deploy, Kerner said.

“Some people are very worried,’’ he
said.

And the fear cuts across young and
old alike.

“If they don’t help to the protect
the coast … everybody is going to suffer,’’ Martin said of teenagers,
including her grandson Cameron, a recent high school graduate, who is
volunteering in the fight to protect fragile fishing grounds. “In last
weekend’s torrential rain, they were working’’ unloading trucks with boom and
other supplies.

The oil spill is the latest battle
for fishers in what Kerner described as a never-ending war for survival. It was
bad enough that fishermen were struggling against the flood of imported
seafood, which drive down their prices.

“Our local fishermen have been
under siege for years,’’ he said.

Yet the worry now, with hurricane
season fast approaching, is that oil will be their undoing.

“Pray,’’ Martin said. “Pray that we
can keep this oil at bay. Pray.’’

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