Reflections in the Wake of the Gulf Coast Spill -Part 1
I’ve followed the horrible oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with growing grief and sadness this past week.
It’s ironic that this spill happened only a month after the Upper Big Branch Mine accident in West Virginia. The towns and hamlets along Louisiana’s marshy coast line have, as it turns out, some commonality with the coal mining towns of Appalachia.
In early 2006 I was in New Orleans doing some volunteer work in the 9th Ward with Common Ground Relief (you can read more about it at my previous blog if you'd like). The Saturday night before Mardi Gras, one of the other volunteers and I wandered into the French Quarter looking for a spot to have dinner. We finally found an African restaurant there where we could get a seat in a reasonable amount of time- the restaurants that had reopened by then were pretty overwhelmed.
It was catch as catch can, so we grabbed a large table as a previous party was getting up to leave. Almost as soon as we sat down, another group asked if we would mind them joining us at the table.
“Not at all,” we responded.
Over the long wait to be served, they began sharing their lives with us. They were two young couples. One, a man originally from Humboldt, CA and his wife, originally from Oregon. She taught poetry at Loyola University in New Orleans. The others were her very young students- the young woman, a native New Orleanian, and the young man from Chauvin, a town near the Gulf, south of Houma, and west of Venice- epicenter of this current catastrophe, and a place devastated by Hurricane Rita, which followed on the tail of Katrina. He described his village to us as one run by women. The men, he explained, were out working on the oil rigs in the Gulf up to 10 weeks at a stretch. He had worked for a while on the rigs himself.
“It’s a whole different world down there,” they told us.
Over plantains, spinach and okra, and chicken with ginger, the young man from Chauvin and Ron (my fellow volunteer who had also spent some time working on oil rigs in Canada), got into a discussion about oil. The young man was extremely bright and the service was very slow, so we talked late into the night about writing, the local universities, the future of New Orleans, whether they could stay there and where else they might end up after graduation. There was a palpable sadness in the air, as the young woman concluded she could not stay.
The Gulf Coast of Louisiana is home to a vibrant culture, one of lively music, wonderful cuisine, a deeply rooted religious tradition- a community with their own language, and one that values family and community above most anything. One of, if not the most unique, in a country increasingly plagued with a commercial culture of “sameness.” The Acadian people settled there hundreds of years ago after being brutally forced out of Nova Scotia, a pawn in the war between the British and the French. Their journey from the Canadian coast to the Louisiana coast surely left a trail of tears in its wake. They, however, are a resilient people, and they've thrived in Louisiana.
Now their way of life is being threatened by coastal erosion, leading to greater devastation from hurricanes. And now, just as the Appalachian coal mining communities- their beautiful topography and their people- have been sacrificed for America’s energy needs, and energy companies’ huge profits, so are the Gulf Coast communities being sacrificed on the altar of the rest of America’s gluttony for oil.