Riding It Out

The clock beside my bed read 3:39 a.m. on July 19. A speck of sand was in the corner of my eye, and as I took it out I yawned like a dog. I stretched my arms out tiredly. A bone cracked somewhere, and out my window it was as black as night.

I would not have woken up if not for the early flight from JFK to New Orleans just that morning. Within fifteen minutes I was showered, dressed, and eating a bowl of cheerios. I was to stay in Louisiana until the 24th, spending five of those days in Grand Isle—one of several areas in the southern United States affected by the BP oil spill.

Indeed, it was the 89th day of the crisis, and though progress was finally made on capping the leaking well, and strategizing further steps to prevent future leaks at the site it was uncertain what long term effects there might be on the ocean. It was in the second month of the oil leak that I decided on going to Louisiana to see for myself the full extent of something we only see on television and in the newspapers. We might ‘feel bad’ or ‘upset’ but I wanted to experience it, see it, and be able to write about it.

My flight arrived at about a quarter to 9 in the morning. Louisiana’s time was an hour behind New York Time.

I walked through Louis Armstrong Airport hearing jazz music, and as I skipped by with my luggage I continued humming the tune that has since evaded my memory.

From the airport I rode a taxi to Pontchartrain Blvd. where I would be meeting Captain Greg Henry. Along my ride there I asked “Gary” the cab driver about how things have been in New Orleans since the spill. People were worried, of course, he said to me, and to some extent it did have an effect on business. Out of the car window I unexpectedly saw palm trees being touched by the morning sun and briefly swaying with the breeze.

I kept Gary’s card for the future in the event that I’d need a ride back from Grand Isle to New Orleans.

During the few minutes I waited for Henry I observed the high walls around Pontchartrain Blvd. Though I was not ignorant of Katrina I at first believed these to be sound barriers.

Pontchartrain Boulevard, New Orleans

Henry arrived at the Wasabi parking lot. We had barely met when an acquaintance of his was driving on by. Henry stopped him, and as they spoke I overheard him asking about details concerning how to essentially have your catch tested/examined by some types of inspectors. Apparently several fishermen and charter captains were seeking information on when and where they were able to go fishing, and how to prove its safe to eat.

Pontchartrain Point Cafe

Local New Orleans newspapers.

Henry, 55, helped me with the luggage before we drove off and told me that the parking lot where he picked me up from was the highest point after Katrina. Floodwaters were so high in the aftermath of Katrina that there were only so many places to find safe ground. The high walls I saw, Henry explained, were part of the barriers and levee system still being built against future flood threats.

As we drove around he pointed out to me some abandoned houses, and others still in disrepair from Katrina’s wrath. Stains marked the height of floodwaters during those days

In a word Henry described the BP oil spill as “heartbreaking.” He has been fishing for 35 years and chartering for 15. He has lived in the water for 30 years, but has lived in New Orleans his whole life. He mentioned hearing of a charter captain committing suicide only the week prior and admitted seeing a therapist to cope with anxieties during this time.

“This is like a mourning period,” he said to me. “It really plays on people’s minds.” Aware of suicides and the toll the spill had taken on others, he said he would never take his own life or even think of it. Nonetheless, he said he understood how traumatic it can be for some with families to suddenly be unable to provide.

Henry has four sisters and one brother. Both of his parents are now in their 80s. “Carefree,” Henry said of himself, he spends a lot of time with his parents. He became a little serious as he spoke of them.

“It’s ok to cry…” he said. “They didn’t do the best job in the world, but they did the best they could…”

Since April 20 Henry had only held one charter. Though he had the option of getting paid to help out in oil skimming he found it too saddening, and decided against it. The main fish Henry goes after are Trout, Flounder, and Red Fish. He spoke to me a lot about fishing, in fact. He discussed how he enjoyed eating his seafood, how he caught his fish, and how adamant he was of his respect for the oceans, rivers, lakes, and marshes. On several occasions, he said, he has caught people from other boats tossing a beer can into the water. Henry would take a net, during such moments; grab the can from the water, catch up to the littering boat, and have a friendly confrontation. He’d tell the litterer of the other boat that he dropped his can, tell him he would be taking a photo of their boat, and then copy down their number, which I would assume is the equivalent of a license plate number. Henry says he probably got negative feelings from such people, but he cared very deeply about preserving the beauty of the seas. In addition, Henry also enjoyed spending time out in Louisiana’s marshes.

Louisiana marshland.

“I’m in love with my marsh,” Henry said.

During one part of the ride Henry talked about how great it felt to fish in the marshes. There are some places where the grass stood four feet high on two sides like a tunnel. When going kayak fishing that grass can appear gigantic. If there were one blade of grass in the marsh seen moving, Henry said, one can be almost certain it was a red fish in the water going after food near the marsh floor. In the morning the light of the sunrise came through the marsh, the grass, and reflected wonderfully on the water.

Henry depicted red fish as more orange than red, and usually has one red dot but sometimes as much as six red dots. I looked over photos Henry showed me of fish he caught during some of his charter rides. With an obvious love for the ocean wildlife Henry expressed more concern and worry about the dispersants used to eliminate oil from the water than the oil spill itself. People simply didn’t know the effects of it on the marsh grasses or fish, he said. Henry also believed the oil drilling moratorium, a source of contention between the White House and oil industry lobbyists, was not good for our economy.

“I’m enjoying this ride,” Henry said. “I haven’t seen this area in a long time.”

Signs advertising nearby crab shops.

Along the way to Grand Isle there were both unique and odd things I saw outside the car window. Near Houma, Louisiana, for example there was a small place that sold frog legs (I didn’t stop to try them). There were also marshes, and sugar cane fields that stretched out far and wide. On the highway near Port Fourchon an old, rusted pickup truck was spotted almost completely submerged in water. Finally, as we neared Grand Isle there was a sign reading ‘Louisiana Nightmare.’

At the sight of several boats, and skimmers seen operating in the area’s waters Henry became saddened and noticeably upset.

“This is it dude,” he said with a horrible sense of finality. “…this is so sad.” A helicopter seen patrolling the waters moved across from one swath of the Gulf to the other, while a Coast Guard ship was also seen conducting its own business. Further on arriving into the actual town of Grand Isle there were several signs assigning blame for the spill on BP and the federal government.

“Redfish Lane!” Henry yelled excitedly as he saw a street sign named after his favorite fish.

When we finally arrived at the Inn that I was staying at I left my luggage, and picked up my keys. Several military vehicles were parked just outside, and when we had arrived and entire bus full of clean-up crew workers walked up over a sand dune and towards the coast where I presume they were to begin their shift cleaning the coastline.

Henry wanted to post flyers advertising the sale of a charter boat, so we headed down all the way towards the end of the island. It was there where we saw the skimmers up close and personal, as well as several BP oil cleanup workers on break. The docks seemed strange except for the presence of these clean-up crews where there would normally be fishermen returning with their catch. It was an utterly depressing sight.

Grand Isle docks.

Oil skimming.

A U.S. Coast Guard ship presumably aiding clean-up efforts in Grand Isle.

After some brief grocery shopping, and picking up the local newspapers I returned to the Inn to unload my things and take a shower. It was in the high 80s and I was hot, sweaty, and in need of a nap.

Sometime after 7 pm I walked down the road to find some grub. A local restaurant was nearby called the Starfish Restaurant. I went in and ordered the seafood gumbo, burger and fries, and a large glass of orange juice. I was unbelievably hungry, and curious to try the seafood gumbo. A painting of a man sailing his ship in the ocean hung on the wall beside my table. It reminded me of John Maesfield’s poem, “Sea fever.”

Seafood Gumbo!

It was my first time having seafood (or anything) gumbo. I found it to be absolutely delicious. While I ate I observed the people intently listening to CNN’s reporting on the oil spill response and BP’s performance in capping the leaking well. Andreson Cooper was reporting on something called the ‘static kill option.’ Patrons joked and commented on both the coverage and character of BP. But in the end one could tell they understood and appreciated the gravity and seriousness of the crisis.

Outside the seafood place a Department of Health bulletin was posted on board offering people affected by the oil spill counseling.

I headed back in the direction of the Inn to the sound of some crickets, and possibly frogs that were in small ponds near the side of the road. “Rome’s Lounge” was open with its lights flickering in the distance, so I walked in hoping to get a sense of the town’s humor and worries. It was not packed at all, and barely anyone was there. It’s a decent lounge, but perhaps since it was Monday night, I thought, it’s not going to be busy. Everyone at the bar that night asked for a Bud-Light. While I waited for my drink I read a sign at the bar:

Throw a punch

Pack your lunch

You’re going to jail.

I listened then to several men speaking with the bartender.

“This oil spill’s fuc*ed everything up,” one customer commented. They had a good sense of humor, but were impatient with what was happening, and the uncertainty of the community’s future. There was almost no reason to hope.

I finished my second round, and called it a night.

Tomorrow was another day.

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