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Voices from the Gulf Coast: “The oil spill was worse than any hurricane”

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How are people coping five years after the biggest environmental disaster in US history?

The Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, 2010—exactly five years ago today. Nearly five million barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf Coast over the next few months. As the years have worn on, the long-term effects of the spill have taken a toll on people’s livelihoods, households, and families; on their health and welfare; and on a way of life that had endured for generations.

In 2014, Oxfam America published A Way of Life at Risk, a short report on the threat to the bayou economy, environment, and culture. Our staff has been working with partners on the ground for years, and while we continue to build toward restoration and resilience, we’re still waiting and watching the long-term effects from the oil and dispersants.

Earlier this month, I traveled to the Gulf to find out more about the ways people are coping, five years later.

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Fishermen along the bayou in Louisiana. Photo: Mary Babic/Oxfam America

“I have run a boat from the moment I could walk. My father taught me everything he knew. I taught my kids what I knew. I don’t think anyone understands why we feel the way we feel about our way of life. It is so much more than a job; it is a way of life. Our way of life. Some of the best memories were being out on the water. It was heartbreaking for me to know that these could possibly be just memories or stories to the future generation…  Slowly, but surely, we are losing ourselves.”

–  Fisherman from Pointe-au-Chien, Louisiana


 

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Photo: Mary Babic/Oxfam America

“We’re hoping to recruit 100 people to go through the Coastal Restoration Empowerment program – but it’s been a challenge to find them. People around here bear a lot of scars from the way they’ve been treated through many disasters. And the oil spill was worse than any hurricane.

Every time you head out in a boat, you pay for ice and gas, and it’s a gamble. The catch has never bounced back from the oil spill. We’re not used to that – after a hurricane, you take a hit, but then you go back to work – you repair, you rebuild. We’re five years into the spill, and folks are starting to lose hope.

My wife’s father has been an oysterman his whole life. Around here you name your boat after your daughter. His boat is named after my wife.”

–   Telley Madina, Gulf Coast program Officer, Oxfam America


 

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Photo: Mary Babic/Oxfam America

“I came to Biloxi after Katrina hit, to help rebuilding houses, and I just loved the sense of empowerment that comes with learning to use tools: building things, fixing things. The Women in Construction program offers free training in general construction skills to women who are looking for a way to make better money than minimum wage. We have a 70 percent placement rate after graduation, and the women will be making $20 or $30 an hour, sometimes with full benefits. A lot of them are staying at the shelter in town, some of them are in recovery. We often see women in the forties, fifties or even older – their kids are grown and they’re looking to save for retirement.

The training lasts all day for eight weeks. They learn how to handle tools safely, and they learn soft skills like how to interview and what to wear.

I attend a lot of meetings getting ready for money from the RESTORE Act. It’s like putting a puzzle together, trying to connect resources and needs with people, especially workers. Especially women: any project that receives federal funds needs to employ 6.9 percent women, and there aren’t that many women who know how to do these jobs. We have worked on over 200 houses in Biloxi, but we’ve also restored a bayou near our office. Environmental groups like Ducks Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy are getting money to do projects like that. We are working on a proposal to be the job trainer for women on the Gulf Coast.”

– Julie Kuklinski, director of the Women in Construction program at Moore Community House in Biloxi, Mississippi


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Rosa Herrin, Oxfam America Gulf Coast policy officer (second from right) with Women in Construction staff (left to right): Molly Gish, program assistant and former student; Simone Agee, trainer; and Julie Kuklinski, program director. The women being trained constructed this building, which has hurricane-proof ceiling and won an award from the American Institute of Architects. Photo: Mary Babic/Oxfam America

“I lived in Mississippi during Katrina, and I’ve seen how difficult it was for most affected people to return to their homes and way of life. We were still recovering when the BP oil spill hit the Gulf Coast. We had to deal with another catastrophic event in a short time.

After a hurricane, fishing may even pick up for a bit as the storm moves wildlife closer to shore. But the oil spill had a completely different impact. … We just don’t know what the long-term effects are. We are still trying to figure out what is the impact of the dispersants that were used during the clean-up.

But there is one thing we know, our communities are resilient, we have proven this over and over; we will continue to hold the responsible parties accountable and we will keep fighting to make sure we have seats at the table when decisions that impact our daily lives are made.

That’s why we’re working to prepare residents for ecosystem restoration jobs. We hope that by connecting people to existing jobs — and creating change within the occupation’s labor market – we can take a real step toward lifting our communities out of poverty.

We had an event on April 17 called ‘Come Fish Off My Boat,’ which welcomed anyone to go out on a boat and cast a line – and see what you get. Most likely you will catch nothing.”

– Rosa Herrin, Oxfam America Gulf Coast policy officer


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Photo: Mary Babic/Oxfam America

“The [oil spill] had a huge impact, particularly on the community that fishes, and that was largely the Asian-American community. The loss of seafood and oysters and shrimping industry has impacted the restaurants.  I think people’s lives have been greatly impacted since the oil spill in many different ways, and we still haven’t recovered… Right now the pressing thing is ensuring that the money that comes from the Clean Water Act is actually used to restore our coast after the BP oil spill. Not only to restore, but to have a prevention plan in place.

On this 5th commemoration of the disaster, we ask BP to join with our communities and be good stewards of the Gulf Coast, where they have profited greatly from drilling oil, and work with [us] to restore and recover from the biggest oil spill disaster in the US.”

– Roberta Avila, Executive Director at Steps Coalition, Biloxi, Mississippi


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