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100 days of oil: Gulf life will never be the same

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 10:23 AM
GRAND ISLE, La. -

A hundred days ago, shop owner Cherie Pete was getting ready for a busy summer serving ice cream and po-boys to hungry fishermen. Local official Billy Nungesser was planning his wedding. Environmental activist Enid Sisskin was preparing a speech about the dangers of offshore drilling.

Then the oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded off the coast of Louisiana, and in an instant, life along the Gulf Coast changed for good.

Pete spends her days worrying that the fishing industry may never recover. Nungesser has put his wedding on hold while he sits in meetings and argues with federal officials. And Sisskin continues to talk about the dangers of drilling - only now, people are listening.

The 100 days since the April 20 explosion have been a gut-wrenching time for folks who work, play and live along the Gulf Coast. The Gulf is a sanctuary for some, an employer for others, and now, a tragedy.

These are their stories.

The Restaurant Owners

A hundred days ago, business was booming at Barrios Seafood Restaurant in Golden Meadow, La., during Lent, when many of the Roman Catholics in south Louisiana forgo meat on Fridays or altogether. Customers were lined up for meals of crab, shrimp, fish and other seafood delivered hours after being pulled from the Gulf.

Alicia and Thomas Barrios believed their years of struggling to get the business going were finally paying off.

"We were saying, 'If business is this good now, just think what it will be like in the summer,'" Alicia Barrios said. "It was more money than we had ever made before in our lives."

They began sprucing up the restaurant, even adding a patio with visions of customers lingering there this summer. Then the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and the oil began filling the Gulf.

"I'd say about 50 percent of our business was tourist, and they stopped coming immediately," Alicia said. "Seafood got hard to get, the price went up and people are worried about eating it."

These days, Thomas Barrios is working in the Vessels of Opportunity program, helping BP clean up the spill. Alicia Barrios has had to lay off two of her employees and the adjacent market is only open two days a week.

She's also thinking about how to change the menu if the price of seafood keeps going up and it remains scarce.

"I guess we could start serving pasta and hamburgers," she said. "But I'm afraid to spend the money on a new sign and menus. To be honest, if it wasn't for the BP check, we'd already be closed."

The Oil Worker

A hundred days ago, Joey Rojas was in a training session for his job as an oil pipeline production operator when he heard about the rig explosion. He figured it would be cleaned up in a few days, but soon he was worrying about the future of his entire industry.

Two weeks after high school graduation, Rojas, 24, bucked a long family tradition of commercial fishing to take a job in south Louisiana's oil country. He hasn't looked back - until now.

He worries about a push by federal officials to impose a deepwater drilling moratorium and new regulations.

"I'm starting to wonder what my future will hold. Will I have to look at another job? Will I be paying $5 or $6 at the pump?" he asked. "If a plane crashes, you don't stop flying."

Every so often, he thinks about another line of work. But there's little chance he'll find one that would pay as much while allowing him to live near his family in the fishing village of Port Sulphur.

"I think about looking for another job. And then I think about where I can make the money that I make now, unless I'm a lawyer or a doctor," he said. "You just can't go anywhere and make $80,000 a year."

He's confident the oil industry will survive, but he's afraid there won't be as many jobs. His 2-year-old son, Joey Jr., might not be able to follow in his footsteps.

"The jobs will be here, and the oil industry will outlast me," he said. "But my son is going to have to go to college and be something else."

The Seafood Broker

A hundred days ago, Darlene Kimball was getting ready for a busy summer at her family's docks in Pass Christian, Miss., waiting for the buyers who would snap up hundreds of pounds of shrimp from the backs of boats, loading them into ice chests and hauling them back to giant freezers.

Now the place is empty, and the only boats she sees are the ones used by BP contractors cleaning up the spill.

Kimball's family has been in the Mississippi seafood industry since 1930, and she's never wanted to do anything else. But recently the 43-year-old had to do the unthinkable - draft a resume so she could look for another line of work.

"Everything's different," she said. "My life has gone from a fast-paced to nothing."

She misses the excitement of fishermen calling from the water announcing their latest haul, the awkward tourists trying to negotiate with boat captains for a piece of the catch. Most of all, maybe, she misses the sound of the seagulls circling the boats long before they come into town.

"There's nothing around me," she said. "My culture is gone, my livelihood is gone. What my grandfather and father have worked so hard to accomplish is in jeopardy."

The Activist

A hundred days ago, Florida environmental activist Enid Sisskin was scanning through oil spill data from the Minerals Management Service, preparing a speech on the dangers of offshore drilling.

Then the rig exploded, and she ended up rewriting the entire thing. She even told a halfhearted joke, about how future discussions of offshore drilling would have to begin with "a noun, a verb and the words Deepwater Horizon."

But Sisskin, who teaches in the public health program at University of West Florida, hasn't laughed much these past 100 days. She lives in the coastal community of Gulf Breeze and has long been a vocal opponent of Gulf drilling rigs.

"There's a constant knot in the pit of my stomach," she said. "I'm afraid for the future. Are we going to come back? Are our waters going to be clean enough? Are we going to have the sea birds? Can we comfortably say to tourists, come on down and get in the water and eat the fish?"

She's been busy this summer, teaching classes and giving talks to groups on the effects of oil and dispersants on public health.

There is one thing she doesn't say in her speeches: I told you so.

"This is something I never ever wanted to be able to say," she said. "It's vindication, but what a horrible way to be vindicated."

The Tourism Mogul

A hundred days ago, Frank Besson was raking in money at the tourism empire he's built on Grand Isle, a spit of land along the coast where vacationers have flocked for decades. What started with his father's souvenir shop expanded to a daiquiri bar across the street and a restaurant next door.

On a good day, he used to make $1,600. The shop's take last Saturday, when the island hosted a benefit concert? A measly $28.18, he says, pointing to the day's receipt.

His little monopoly is in shambles these days. The restaurant, known for a homemade pecan glaze that's perfect for chicken fingers, is closed indefinitely. The daiquiri bar opens late each night to a trickle of customers. And most days you can find Besson inside his locked souvenir shop, watching a tiny TV.

The only thing that's keeping the business afloat, he said ruefully, is that BP leased two of his rental homes and signed a catering contract with his shuttered restaurant.

Besson, 61, is still optimistic that business will turn around and he'll be able to reopen his restaurant. But for now, he's found himself in an unusual position. He's actually hoping for a storm.

"We want some rough weather so we can disperse and dissolve some of that stuff," he said. "I hate to say it, and I never thought I would say that, but that's what we want."

The Local Official

A hundred days ago, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser was busy with blueprints of fire stations, schools and community centers damaged during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and still in need of rebuilding. He was planning his wedding to his longtime fiance, which they postponed after the storm.

"I had a life," Nungesser says.

Now, his life looks like this: Endless meetings with the Coast Guard. Endless arguments with federal officials and BP workers. And countless media appearances - he's been on Anderson Cooper so often alongside fellow Cajun James Carville that the trio are like the holy trinity of nighttime cable TV.

The new fire stations, schools and community centers have been put on hold. He's seen his mother twice in the past few months - and she lives right in the coastal Louisiana parish. And then there's the matter of the wedding. That's not happening anytime soon, not until life calms down and the fight is over.

For now, he's got a war to wage. That's how he characterizes his region's fight against BP, the federal government, the oil.

"A hundred days later, I can't look you in the eye and tell you who's in charge," he said. "I would not want to go to war with this team. Looking back, it's very sad that a lot of marshes and wildlife could have been saved if the federal government and BP had just listened to local people."

The Priest

A hundred days ago, the Rev. Mike Tran was busy ministering to his flock at the lone Catholic church on Grand Isle.

When he was first assigned, he dragged his feet. It was too small, too isolated and there was too little to do. Boy was he wrong.

He arrived in July 2005, weeks before Hurricane Katrina demolished much of the island. Parishioners at Our Lady of the Isle weathered that storm and the others that followed, but the spill has presented a new challenge. It threatens their way of life.

Church attendance has been cut in half. Weekly donations are down $1,000. Yet more people than ever are walking up the stilted church's stairs to seek food and money.

The morning after the rig explosion, Tran held a mass to honor the 11 victims. Most church members hadn't even heard the news.

The last three months have been a whirlwind of prayer, charity and counseling.

"People are constantly in fear," he said. "They like to work, not to rely on a business for help. They were able to go out on the Gulf whenever they wanted to feed their families. They were living a worry-free life, knowing that the Gulf would provide."

The Dolphin Cruise

A hundred days ago, the website for Blue Dolphin Cruises in Orange Beach, Ala., beckoned visitors to come join the fun.

Cruise operators promised amazing sights: Ono Island's exclusive celebrity homes, stunning sunsets and, of course, dolphins.

On board the 47-passenger pontoon boat, tourists could buy soft drinks, water, beer, wine, snacks, as well as film, T-shirts, stuffed dolphins, visors, necklaces, and other souvenirs. Dolphin sightings were guaranteed, but guests were warned not to feed or swim with the sleek animals.

The website still says "Come join the fun."

The summer of 2010 has been anything but.

"Thank you for calling Blue Dolphin Cruises," the company's voicemail message now says. "We are currently closed due to the oil spill."

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