“We thought 2010 was the year to finally recover from Katrina.” This quote is from the Louisiana Justice Institute’s recent briefing on the impact of the BP oil spill on Black fishing communities in Louisiana. When Hurricane Katrina hit, it opened people’s eyes to a side of race and poverty in our nation that is often hidden. The sight of hundreds of people, mostly poor and Black, waiting for days for rescue, food, and water shocked and angered many Americans. And the pictures of families at the New Orleans Convention Center or clinging to rooftops in the Lower Ninth Ward became some of the most familiar and haunting symbols of Katrina’s devastation. Katrina’s tragedy was not limited to the city of New Orleans, its most visible symbol. Katrina changed and damaged lives and livelihoods all around the Gulf region, many forever, including many of the same communities that are now dealing with the aftermath of the oil spill. This new crisis is leaving numerous families in these already vulnerable and fragile communities even more hopeless.
While preparing their briefing, the Louisiana Justice Institute visited several small fishing villages in lower Plaquemines Parish, about 50 miles south of New Orleans, where some Black families have lived for generations. Hurricane Katrina had already forced many families to leave the area, including Judy, a grandmother from rural Plaquemines Parish the Children’s Defense Fund met as we were preparing our report Katrina’s Children: A Call to Conscience and Action. Before Katrina, Judy shucked oysters in a seafood plant, but the storm closed the plant and destroyed her home. She had moved to four different shelters before we met her in a New Orleans FEMA trailer park, struggling to care for her 11-month-old granddaughter Myan, her 14-year-old daughter, and her 84-year-old diabetic mother in one trailer. Her older children lived a few trailers down. “Back home, the children had parks to go to. I knew they were safe among our neighbors. We didn’t lock our doors,” Judy told us. In the trailer park, she felt surrounded by bad influences and had no place for Myan to play: “I just want to get Myan and my children away.”
When we met with Judy again a year later, she and her family had moved from the trailer park to another FEMA temporary housing community, but they were no closer to returning “home”—or to the familiar, quieter way of life now under a new long-term threat. The Louisiana Justice Institute noted the Black fishing villages they visited are home to families whose ancestors, a mix of slaves, free Blacks, Native Americans, and French and Spanish settlers, had settled on land carved out from former plantations and had been making their living from the water for generations. In addition to the work of harvesting oysters and shrimp at local fisheries, many people here own their own boats. Most of these Black fishermen, like other small fishermen throughout the region, were never wealthy. But fishing was a stable way of life, and those whose homes and boats weren’t destroyed by Katrina were at least able to return to work after the hurricane was over. They earned enough to support their families—until now.
The horrendous BP oil spill has changed everything. If it took five years to feel as if they were finally starting to recover from Katrina, there is a growing sense of fear that this time the recovery might not happen in their lifetimes. The scope of the environmental disaster is just too great and unknown. And of course, there are immediate day-to-day consequences. Not only are families dependent on income from fishing, but the catch of the day is also generally the staple in families’ diets across the region. Suddenly, both money and that main food source are gone. But this time, the stress of everyday survival and covering bills, mortgages, and feeding a family are compounded by deeper fears about the future. With this latest crisis there is not even a clear sense yet of when the destruction will be over, much less what the long-term damage will be. There is a tremendous sense of worry about unknown future health hazards from the spill. Epidemiology and toxicology tracking is already being done, looking for early problems like complaints about odors and fumes or skin contact with contaminants. But with long-term health concerns, just as with the long-term environmental impact, no predictions are sure. What is sure is that from health to the environment to the fishing industry and the region’s way of life, people are afraid that so much that can’t be regained or repaired is being lost with every escaping gush of oil.
There’s no single signature picture of child and family suffering from the BP oil crisis this time around. But the suffering—and need for help and hope—is overwhelming.