Much press has been given to the dire threat BP’s oil slick poses to the coastal ecosystems, marine environment, and the economies that depend on the health of both. But now another tragic extension of the oil disaster is becoming apparent – a feeling of hopelessness and abandonment that threatens ways of life and cultural traditions that give the Gulf Coast its own unique, irreplaceable personality.
According to New Orleans’ WGNO News, BP’s still-uncontrolled gush of oil has begun to invade the fragile wetlands that sustain Louisiana’s $3 billion seafood industry, and the situation has become so dismal that some fishermen have said they are contemplating suicide.
The desperation is palpable in many southeastern Louisiana communities where fishing and shrimping is king. Republican Congressman Joseph Cao toured areas of the state where fishing came to an abrupt stop just after the Deepwater Horizon rig sank in the Gulf on April 22.
“I spoke to a group of fishermen, mainly Vietnamese Americans and a group of them came up to me and said, they told me that they contemplated suicide because they’re in such despair,” Cao told WGNO.
Cao said the fishermen were feeling a stress exacerbated by the problems caused by Hurricane Katrina nearly five years ago.
“For some people, this is almost a boiling point where they can no longer handle it and they’re going to crack,” Cao said.
“These are grown men that broke down and cried this morning because they don’t know what to do and we don’t know how long it’s going to be,” Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser added.
Cao and organizations such as Volunteers of America are coordinating an effort to get counselors and mental health workers to intervene. Voris Vigee of Volunteers of America said that her organization is expediting crisis and psychological counseling because the fishermen have just started to recover their homes and businesses after Katrina and now they “have to go through this all over again.”
The despair of Louisiana’s fishermen is reminiscent of the communities along Prince William Sound in Alaska, where the Exxon Valdez spilled millions of barrels of oil in 1989. To this day, the area’s vital herring industry remains closed, which has forced generations of fishermen into bankruptcy and destroyed the native way of life.
There, according to the group Exxpose Exxon, “Workers were sickened by chemicals used to clean the oil, property was damaged, and psychological problems, divorce, and alcohol abuse increased.”
The damage was so extensive that “Bob Van Brocklin, then-mayor of the hard hit town of Cordova and a generational fisherman himself, took his own life after watching his community suffer years of ecological and financial wreckage,” Exxpose Exxon reports. Brocklin’s suicide note mentioned Exxon and the company’s destruction of his community.
Similarly, along some of the farthest stretches of Louisiana’s coastline, the AFP reported that the oil spill “may have sounded the death knell for the vanishing cultures of the last French-speaking Cajun communities and Louisiana Native Americans.”
Since the Deepwater Horizon exploded, no BP-contracted or government vessels have come around the tiny coastal community of Isle de Jean Charles to help protect it from the encroaching oil. Resident Clifton Hendon hasn’t been able to go into the Gulf to harvest his oyster beds, which are his only source of income, because fishing has been banned.
“I’ve lost hundreds of dollars,” the 63-year-old oysterman said, one of the 80 or so last remaining French Indians, as they call themselves, living on Isle de Jean Charles,” AFP reported.
“They have abandoned us,” Clifton told the AFP.
Christophe Brunet, the island’s historian, said that government officials “told us that this island has nothing of value worth saving.”
Tribal chief Albert Naquin echoed the despair, telling the AFP that the government “forgot us because we are a small community and because we are an Indian community.”