Documenting the Gulf Oil Spill

Karen Hopkins moved from the little Cajun town of Pecaniere to Grand Isle in 1998. Most of the island’s residents work in the fishing industry, and Karen is in the middle of it all, managing Dean Blanchard Seafood, Grand Isle’s largest seafood processor. Business at Blanchard’s has almost completely stopped since the oil spill forced the closing of Gulf fishing grounds.

Karen lives on the water in a house designed to withstand floods (her last home was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina). In the clip here, I asked her to describe what she sees when she looks out her window.

Acy Cooper, Jr. lives in Venice, Louisiana, 75 miles south of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River. He fishes for shrimp, like his father and his sons. As vice president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, Acy has spent years advocating for the needs of his fellow shrimpers: fighting against the dumping of foreign shrimp in the domestic market, for instance, or fighting for a certification and branding program for Louisiana commercial fishermen. Now, he is speaking out for the many challenges fishermen face in the wake of the oil spill. His has been an especially strong voice calling for a fair distribution of work on the clean-up program – making sure as many people as possible get the paycheck the work offers. He also has advocated with fervor for fishermen working on the clean-up to be provided with respirators to protect them from the potentially harmful effects of oil and dispersant.

In the first clip – recorded over the bustle at Riverside Restaurant in Venice, which Acy owns with his wife – Acy describes all that he and other local fishermen have at stake in this crisis.

In the second clip (at 1:01), Acy describes some of the mental health problems he fears will come as the disaster continues to unfold.

In the third clip (at 2:22), Acy describes his concerns about the health risks facing fishermen who work on the clean up, and the need for respirators.

Philip Simmons’ family has lived in Empire, Louisiana since the late 1700s. Philip carries on the family tradition of working the land: hunting, fishing, shrimping, oystering, and grazing cattle in the marshes not far from the mouth of the Mississippi River. At 67, Philip has faced many challenges living in south Louisiana. He has rebuilt his house three times – after 1965’s Hurricane Betsy, 1969’s Hurricane Camille, and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. He has watched the wetlands erode and fish and wildlife populations decrease. He told me the oil spill means he won’t be able to harvest oysters or shrimp or fish this year, and probably for years to come. Still, he can’t imagine leaving Empire.

In this clip, Philip remembers fishing in the marshes as a boy, and the different values he saw around him then.

James Blanchard moved to Houma, Louisiana, in 1993 to be a little farther north of the floods and hurricanes that seem an inevitable part of living on the coast. Still, like his father, his uncle, and two of his brothers, James Blanchard trawls for shrimp “down the bayou,” out of Chauvin, Louisiana. He took his shrimp boat out of the water for its annual maintenance in March, and has not caught a shrimp since. Instead, he’s been catching oil, working for BP as part of the “Vessels of Opportunity” program that employs local fishermen in the clean up effort.

In this clip, James describes the spirit among the clean-up crew.

Warren Perrin grew up in the little southwest Louisiana town of Henry. He has become a prominent local attorney and cultural activist, working hard to preserve and promote the Acadian history, the French language, and contemporary Cajun culture. Warren was first inspired to become a lawyer after watching his parents struggle to negotiate fair lease agreements with oil companies. He has joined a consortium of lawyers in south Louisiana who are litigating against BP, including mostly recently a successful suit that against contracts BP gave local fishermen that required them to wave various rights as a prerequisite for working on oil spill clean up.
 
In this clip, Warren looks to Acadian history to explain how he is facing this new challenge. (In 2003, after over a decade of advocacy, Warren successfully pressed Queen Elizabeth II to apologize to the Acadian people for their expulsion from Canada in 1755.)

Drew Landry is a songwriter and musician who lives in Scott, Louisiana, connected to the great local music scene in nearby Lafayette. In his free time, he crawfishes in the Atchafalaya Basin, the large river swamp that cuts south Louisiana in half. After the oil began spilling, Drew tried to volunteer to help with the cleanup, but he says BP never returned his calls. Instead, he has been working to organize coastal residents to advocate for their health, safety, and environmental and economic well-being.
 
In this clip, taken from the very beginning of our interview, Drew describes why he has been referring to the contemporary scene as “the Cajun Alamo.”

In this clip, Drew Landry plays a song he wrote about the disaster, “BP Blues,” performing it in a medley with a song he wrote after Hurricane Katrina. (A few days after our interview, Drew played the song in New Orleans for the Oil Spill Presidential Commission. A week later, over 90,000 people had watched the song on YouTube. You can follow Drew’s blog at www.dirtycajuns.com.)

Cherri Foytlin grew up in Choctaw, Oklahoma and moved to Rayne, Louisiana with her husband, Forest, and their six children, in 2005. Forest grew up in south Louisiana and brought his family back after he found work offshore in the oil industry. Cherri found work with a small local newspaper, and the family bought a new house. Three days after they closed of their house, President Barack Obama declared a moratorium on deepwater drilling, and Forest lost his job. Cherri loves living in south Louisiana, but is worried about how they will keep the house and take care of the family.
 
In the first clip, Cherri describes how the oil spill and the response to it has changed her view of the federal government.

In the second clip (at 0:51), Cherri offers a take on green energy from the perspective of someone who pays the bills with an oil company paycheck.