Today’s posting is by Lois Nickel, Director Regional Relations and Programs, Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS). MDS is a volunteer network through which North American Anabaptist churches can respond to those affected by disasters in Canada and the United States. Lois wrote this reflection last Wednesday, June 9, during a visit to the coast of Louisiana.
A Day Spent in Plaquemine’s Parish
Yesterday I had the privilege of spending a day on the Gulf Coast southwest of New Orleans in Plaquemine’s Parish (like a county or municipality), Louisiana USA. Six Hesston College students, two Canadian Mennonite University students, and I were led by Mennonite Disaster Service volunteer Paul Unruh (Newton Kansas) on a tour of the area.
We began our day in Port Sulphur and met John – our boat captain – and two other shrimp fishers who travelled with us in the bayou. We skimmed along the water until we reached the houses that MDS had built and picked up Rosina and Ruby. Our group was now 15 in a small boat with nearly enough life jackets. We cruised up close to the marsh grasslands and touched the healthy grasses, listened to the birds singing, smelled the clean air. Miles and miles of marsh where fish spawn and live. An ecosystem that is so precious to our earth and to these Bayou peoples. They believe God has asked them to be its caretakers. They’ve done that for generations, they want to do so for generations to come. But that may not be possible.
We sped further out into the wetlands and it was not long until we could start to see a six inch line of black oil film on the grasses. We could smell kerosene-like toxins in the air at points and we saw the gorgeous pelican birds covered in black oil. One was trying to fly and was unable to. We were assured by the next boat we met that the animal rescue folks were on their way to pick this pelican up. It was explained later that day, though, that not nearly all the birds survive after being washed clean of the oil. Many have ingested it and get sick and die anyway. The line of black oil on the grasses grew in inches the further into the Gulf we drove. We took a container out of the boat and scooped up some of the brown globs oil to show those back on land. We saw the white booms that BP has placed as borders before the marsh grasses to soak up the oil and saw how they weren’t working and the oil was going under and around these booms and reaching far into the grasses anyway.
Eventually we turned around and came back to Rosina’s home. She invited us in for conversation and sweet tea. We sat in a circle and listened to her passionately talk about her corner of the earth and this new threat that may end her family’s way of life. She and others in her family explained that Katrina was bad, but it was a natural event that came and went and both nature and humans rebuilt in the few years since. It could be overcome. The oil spill’s effects cannot yet be known and are affecting both humans and the entire ecosystem of the wetlands. Shrimpers are out of work – they cannot shrimp. Many of the local folks don’t know what they will eat – they are used to eating seafood much of the year. They are now considering container gardening for vegetables and raising chickens. They will need to diversify.
The Bayou people did not express anger. They expressed grief and mourning. Rosina agreed with my confession that we don’t want to give up the products that oil affords us. We want to drive gas driven boats and cars, etc. Her frustration with BP is not leading her and her people to wish for all oil drilling to stop. Many of the Gulf coast people work for BP and the other oil companies. These companies provide jobs that are needed. Some families have one person in the shrimping business and one person working for BP and sometimes a person will do both. Her frustration with BP is that they and other oil companies are not putting people first. Economics and profit drive these large corporations and in this case (and others that have not had such an accident just yet) BP failed to follow all safety regulations as suggested. This accident could have been avoided, but money and greed allowed it to happen.
Now, Rosina says, the people in the Gulf are held hostage by BP. They can’t try to clean up the oil themselves, nor can the state or the parish. Everyone must leave it alone while BP takes responsibility and cleans it up. If anyone interferes, then BP can blame anything that doesn’t work or goes wrong on someone else who was involved. The people who live there are restricted in going and even looking at the damage – they can get fined for doing so. They also need work. They can register with BP and be hired by BP to help clean up the spill. But again if BP sees them so much as wearing a nose/mouth mask or spitting into the water, they are fired.
What can we do? Rosina believes that each voice that carries the message to the world that we need oil companies to be safer and make human life and ecosystems priority over profit will make a difference. She asked us to tell everyone what is happening there and to pray for them. They want to live there and work there and have the earth healthy there. They feel like they can’t fix this, they can’t do much, but they can tell their story.
Later in the day we met with a Vietnamese shrimper who had been waiting for weeks to hear from BP about a job as his boat sat idle. He found out on Tuesday evening that he was hired. We toured his shrimp boat after he pulled into his berth for the night. He was smiling from ear to ear he was so very very happy that he had work. He did not believe that the booms (white long strips of batting that are put in the water to soak up and stop the oil) he was placing where BP told him were helping any, but it meant he could pay his bills and feed his family. The pay is good and he was happy to work. Another fellow on the docks was waiting for that call from BP – he has registered too – and was so hoping it was him that would get a job next.
There is much more I could write yet and I may yet, but this is it for today. I’m including a few pictures to show an example of what I saw. I have many mixed emotions – of anger, frustration, sadness, loss, and also of not completely understanding the scope and magnitude of it all. Paul has written a most moving poem about all this that I also will share with you (click here to read “Grieving Again”).