Cover Story

What lies beneath

"What lies beneath" Continued...

Issue: "Gulf toil," June 5, 2010

Like many fishermen, Pique is waiting for a call from BP. If he does get work, the captain knows it will only last a limited time, and he wonders how much business will be left when it's over: "It's just a stepping stone-but to what?"

With uncertainty abounding, BP officials don't even know the answer to that question, but they are preparing for the long haul. A nearby marina tucked away from traffic and onlookers serves as a staging ground for emergency operations in Venice. It's one of 17 similar staging grounds across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

Officials say some 20,000 personnel are responding to the disaster on sea and land across the region. By mid-May, officials reported nearly 1,000 vessels at the disaster site, including skimmers, tugs, barges, and recovery vessels.

In Venice, the town of 450 residents has nearly doubled with an influx of workers. BP officials have leased an 18-acre site for three months, with an option to renew for a year. The site is filled with heavy equipment, booms, vessels, airplanes, and practical necessities like a dining hall that serves lunch to 900 people. In town hall meetings and media interviews, BP officials have insisted they will stay in the region until the job is finished, a timeframe impossible to predict.

For Wendy McDonald, the unpredictability is wearying. McDonald is a city councilwoman in Bay St. Louis, Miss., a small coastal town 60 miles northeast of New Orleans that knows disaster well: Hurricane Katrina devastated the town in 2005. Five years later, the city-like many others along the Gulf Coast-is still recovering.

Though many residents never rebuilt their homes, and workers are still replacing badly damaged sewage systems in some areas, a drive near the shoreline is encouraging: Once-empty slabs are filling up again with neatly kept homes. A quaint downtown district offers restaurants, antiques, and art. And for now, the beaches look pristine.

McDonald, a native of Bay St. Louis, also serves as executive director for Habitat for Humanity. The organization builds about 40 homes each year in the town, and nearly every new homeowner is a Katrina victim. With the town finally regaining steam, McDonald says the uncertainty of the oil spill is taunting: "It's like the monster under the bed."

Fishermen in the town are already suffering from water closures, and McDonald says that affects everyone: "Fishermen don't get any work, and then they don't spend any money. Then restaurants and gas stations are hurt. It has a snowball effect."

That snowball effect is hard to stop, even for locals accustomed to disaster. "If this was a hurricane, we'd know what to do," says McDonald. "We'd board up our windows and buy our supplies. But we don't know what to do with this."

Figuring out what to do falls partly to Brian Adam, director of the county's emergency management agency. At a daily meeting in a donated office space, local officials join Coast Guard representatives, clean-up experts, and BP officials to discuss strategy. Adam gives an update: Workers are testing water and air quality. Others are testing a large batch of dead fish found on the beach for possible contamination. Locals are helping to lay boom for absorbing oil.

County supervisor Steve Seymoura reports that he viewed the sheen in a flyover. His conclusion: "We better pace ourselves." Seymour tells the group that the effects of the massive oil spill may be long-lasting. After the meeting, he says that the county's hurricane response makes coordination and logistics easier this time, but "we don't want to burn ourselves out on the front end."

At the nearby Bayou Caddy marina, Keath Ladner is also bracing himself. The oyster and shrimp distributor is a third-generation seafood man who distributes millions of pounds of seafood each year. His family lost the entire business during Katrina, but Ladner rebuilt. He normally buys oysters and shrimp from between 60 to 100 fishermen in the local port and resells them to processing facilities in states as far away as Delaware.

These days, he has nothing to sell.

Standing on a dock next to a slew of idle equipment and empty trucks, Ladner says the local water closures have closed his business for now. Though nearly 80 percent of federal waters remained open for fishing by mid-May, not all of the water is equally productive. Ladner says the fishermen he hires for his business get nearly all of their catch from the waters now closed by officials. "There's nothing I can do right now," he says. "Zero. It's like Katrina has come through and stopped everything again."

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