Thursday, June 24, 2010

“Welcome back to Paradise’’

Still in the process of recovery from Hurricane Katrina some five years ago, the people of St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana are now bracing for yet another assault on their environment, their lives and the source of many of their livelihoods. (GW)

Waiting for the oil

Hit hard by Katrina, residents of St. Bernard Parish anxiously prepare for the BP spill to reach their shores

By Joanna Weiss
Boston Globe
June 23, 2010


THE OIL is coming. It’s not here yet, but it’s coming.

St. Bernard Parish, a place that bore some of the worst effects of Hurricane Katrina, has thus far been mostly spared from the BP disaster. No one knows when this state of grace and irony will end; projections show that oil could hit the barrier islands of Breton Sound as early as tomorrow. And so a community accustomed to waiting for hurricanes, wondering if the worst case scenario will hit, now has to wait again.

“It’s a malignancy,’’ Sheriff Jack Stephens told me as he sat inside a trailer at the Breton Sound Marina, an outpost on the parish’s eastern edge where the land breaks off into the marsh. “It’s like a storm that stayed in the Gulf for two months and didn’t come ashore.’’

It takes a certain resiliency to bear this kind of pressure, and I’ve seen it before. I worked here for years as a cub reporter, roaming amid the low brick homes and oil refineries, the fishing villages where locals were always fighting some natural or man-made threat. I watched from afar during Katrina, when water from the hated Mississippi River Gulf Outlet poured into the parish as everyone had feared, flooding all but five of its 27,000 houses, filling the first story of my old office building.

“Welcome back to Paradise,’’ Stephens told me this week, and he meant it. People here are attached to home; nearly two-thirds of St. Bernard’s residents are back since Katrina, the population up to 43,000, settled into rebuilt houses and state-of-the-art new schools. “We were on a good roll,’’ said Craig Taffaro, the parish president, who had been preparing for a string of fifth-anniversary milestones, but now spends the bulk of his time at the marina.

What was once a bare-bones collection of boating sheds is now an impromptu military encampment, complete with helicopter pads, a mess hall where they spoon out chicken fried steak, and an air-conditioned office building that rose from nothing in two weeks. Inside, Coast Guard officers mingle with local officials, contractors and BP representatives. They follow a daily schedule — Operations Brief, Objectives Meeting, Tactics Meeting — gathering at a U-shaped table beside a page-a-day book of inspirational thoughts.

In a nearby trailer, state fisheries officers monitor the nearby waters. Most are still open for fishing, but most local fishermen are working for BP instead. “They’re paying your fuel and they’re paying your crew and they’re paying your boat,’’ one leather-skinned fisherman said with a shrug. Now he is laying containment booms, as per the official strategy: isolate and capture the oil before it hits land.

From the air, the booms look like bits of orange string, laid out in curves amid the bayous and dribbles of marsh. In a helicopter on Monday, BP consultant Pat Touchard admired the fishermen’s work. “I like this,’’ he said at one point. “It’s got a break in the middle for the current. It allows oil to collect in places, where we can work it.’’

Touchard, a former oil cleanup specialist with the Louisiana State Police, is more optimistic than most locals here. He believes BP’s efforts offshore have helped to spare the parish. He sees the cleanup of beaches and marshes as a finite, achievable task. But he also grew up around his uncle’s fishing camp on the St. Bernard bayou. He knows the people of St. Bernard feel neglected, still stinging from indignities that date back to the flood of 1927, when a levee here was deliberately blown up, local homes destroyed to save the richer towns upriver. A month ago, when the BP cleanup was in its early stages, Taffaro ranted to reporters that “if I were a betting man, I would be betting that the plan is to let us die.’’

St. Bernard does not go quietly, Touchard said. “Their paradigm since Katrina is, you don’t ask for help, you scream.’’

But here in Hopedale, no one is screaming right now. It’s more a state of electric anticipation, tempered by gallows humor and the occasional sharper fear. Stephens recounted the worries that keep him up at night, the things people gab about at gas stations up the road. What if a hurricane hits? What if there’s an earthquake? How long will it be before the well is capped? How much oil will arrive, when it finally does?

“It’s apocalyptic when you start thinking about it,’’ Stephens said. And then he laughed. Because there’s not much else you can do at this point, except prepare. And wait.


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