A small poster attached on the wall of my room at the inn named them all:
Common Saltwater Fish of Louisiana
Redfish. Spotted Seatrout. Atlantic Croaker. Black Drum. Spanish Mackerel. King Mackerel. Red Snapper. Tarpon… and so on.
But if not for the oil spill there would have been crowds of people here at the beach, or at the docks fishing, enjoying the sun, beautiful waters, and southern comforts.
The morning of July 20, following breakfast, and a quick face wash I stepped out towards the back of the Inn, and onto Grand Isle beach. It was a gorgeous day, somewhere above 82 or so degrees with a slight breeze coming off the Gulf of Mexico. On any given summer there would be families there on the sand, perhaps children running through the water at the shore, and whatever else a visitor might do to enjoy the ease and comfort of the beach life. This was not, however, any given summer.
British Petroleum clean-up crews had camps set up on the beach, and in sight as soon as you set foot on the sand. Oil boons lined the sand from west to east all the way down the beach, and nets prevented anyone from crossing a certain point. Patrol vehicles periodically drove down the beach, and a chopper flew overhead every so often.
The entire scene was like a really bad dream. I spotted an empty camp area where only one worker was seated, on break perhaps, drinking water. I asked him if he might give a word or two about what had happened, but not surprisingly he said he did not feel comfortable commenting.
Grand Isle’s beach was divided into zones, I noticed as I continued walking down the beach. Workers could be seen bagging some material taken from the shore line, and though it could have simply been oil, or tar balls, it might have also been dead animals which succumbed to the oil’s toxic properties.
I wanted to enjoy the walk, and listen to the sounds of the waves breaking up on one another, and then rushing up on the sand. The sky was clear, and the sun’s heat made a jump in the water sound appealing. But every point on that beach was marked, and divided by BP’s clean-up effort, and the sounds of the ocean were rivaled by the spin of the chopper blades as it flew over. And despite how nice the water looked I knew there were still hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil floating somewhere in the ocean damaging its quality, and overall marine life in ways we cannot yet realize.
An entire ecosystem defiled.
I continued walking along the beach, snapping photographs of the boons, and workers. The only people on the beach that day, other than me, were the clean-up workers. Behind the house, and just next to the beach, however, one woman was seen tanning. Further down a resident was feeding several birds with small pieces of bread.
If this had been Jones Beach, or Long Beach in New York I would have been very upset. They are places I take pleasure walking through to have a bit of peaceful solitude. These images of strange people walking around with collection bags, driving in cats or bulldozers to move the sand, and endless oil boons would have robbed that sweet solitude away from me, or anyone.
After a little over an hour of walking on the beach I walked back up to the street and headed back to the inn.
The houses in Grand Isle and some of its businesses are all built on large, well-built beams meant to sustain someone’s property high above the ground in case of flooding. Most of the houses in Grand Isle have names; another interesting thing I discovered during my walk. Some of these names include: the Mother Ship, the Deep South, the Chinook, and the Oh Henry! My personal favorite was the Point of View.
It was near a house called Toy that I found a graveyard. This graveyard, though, was not meant to house the dead, but built more as a memorial to those precious things that had been lost because of the BP oil spill. Handmade crosses with the words or names of these dearly held jewels of Grand Isle were all standing out along this person’s lawn.
Flying a kite, speckled Trout, seafood gumbo, sandcastles, dolphins, redfish rodeo, shrimp boats, Wahoo, sand between my toes, beach sunsets, fishing, shrimping, and many other cherished pastimes were given a place of remembrance. Behind all of these crosses was a huge cross made out of crab cages standing about eight feet high off the ground. Perhaps the most powerful one of these crosses was the one marked Our Soul. It came to me that the owner of this property actually went to great length to create this memorial. He or she spent much creativity, time, effort, and sweat to place each one of the crosses and write in the names of those things lost. Obviously this person cared deeply about the community, its environment, and future. Twice during my trip I tried to contact the owner of the property but with no success. Considering the devotion evident in the work, though, I would say this person is someone who has probably lived in Grand Isle for a very long time.
The time here in Grand Isle was beginning to resemble what Captain Greg Henry had referred to as a “mourning period.”
On the way back there were several other such signs, remembrances, and expressions of frustration. “Shame on you BP,” “BP, We want our beach back,” “3 Generations of Fishermen Are Gone,” and still more. For these people, the environment, and marine life are not just pastimes, but livelihoods. Honest livelihoods.
That night at Rome’s Nightclub I met one such fisherman riding out the hard times.
Tommy Pellegrin, 46, of Morgan City, Louisiana had not fished since April. He has fished his whole life and made a living doing so.
“That’s all I ever did since I got out of school,” he said with a smile. He had clear blue eyes, was wearing a hat, and held his drink in his hand while he spoke. There was a sense that while he wanted to tell his story he was also disconcerted over even having to tell it.
As a result of the oil spill Pellegrin was rendered to skimming and being paid by BP. It was not the same amount of money he would have gotten paid for fishing and shrimping but Pellegrin said it was “close.”
On some very fortunate occasions Pellegrin might have made $7,000 shrimping in two nights. He normally made an average of about $4,200 every 2 weeks.
Pellegrin was “taking it day by day; trying to make ends meet,” he said. “I wanna look for what I want.” He and those in sport fishing, he said, are “crossing our fingers” for safe fishing.”
Pellegrin called the overall response by the government “hectic” at first, but believes they had done a “pretty good job” however slow it might have been. He was not completely against more offshore drilling so long as oil companies “get that shi* straight” (in reference to preventing/responding to oil leaks and spills; and that they “abide by the book.”
Eileen Ransbottom, 44, works at Rome’s Nightclub. As a Louisiana resident, and bartender at the Nightclub she has met many people affected by the oil spill.
“It’s hurtin’ all the way in New Orleans,” she said. “They’re all feeling it,” she said of the various parishes in Louisiana.
Normally, Ransbottom said, Grand Isle would be packed full of people attending the tarpon rodeo, an international fishing tournament.
“Usually you can’t even drive in the street,” she said. Ransbottom compared the community’s situation to one of desertion, and said it was “not like it normally would be.” In my observations of the BP clean-up workers simply being in the community I considered, perhaps that in some way they might have been making some money for the businesses in the community.
“It don’t make up for it” though, Ransbottom said. “A lot of people can’t make their mortgage payments.” She twice mentioned that she didn’t believe the oyster reefs were going to come back for decades. Oysters and shrimp are two of the most profitable staples of Louisiana seafood, and without them even for some years could do damage to a lot of families some of whose income is solely based on them.
Ransbottom was upset and skeptical over the oil spill, and future off shore drilling. However she did not believe that the White House should have ordered the moratorium on future deepwater offshore drilling. Instead Ransbottom said the government ought to hire more inspectors, and be “damn sure” about the safety of those who are being allowed to drill.
In two words Ransbottom summed up her opinion of the response by BP and the government: “It sucks.”
She didn’t talk about the crisis in terms of years but decades and generations for a place that is considered “sportsman’s paradise.”