In our weeks in Bayou La Batre we saw every form of beach house kitsch, from iridescent fish-shaped sugar bowls to wooden signs that read: “I don’t skinny dip, I chunky dunk.” Fish were anthropomorphized in ways that seemed odd to us. Fried oysters received the masculine pronoun. Tilapia, we were told, “don’t do nothing but make love.” Even if you didn’t know the statistics, you’d know this was a fishing town.
“They say people here is tougher than a pine knot,” said Mayor Stanley Wright, “but I tell you why I think they keep rebuilding. They don’t know nothing else to do. This community has the highest dropout rate in all of Alabama, and the reason why is you either work in a seafood processing plant or fish with your daddy or your grandpa.” There were plans to revitalize the tourist industry with new beachfront condos, but after Katrina, property insurance was too high for the project to be feasible. So the community has just kept staggering along on its meager catch.
People in Bayou La Batre will talk to you about the oil spill, but they’d rather show you the high water mark in their oyster shop, their pool hall, or their home. The dramatic visibility of Hurricane Katrina makes it easier to talk about, easier to internalize than the BP oil spill. Next to newly built houses you find FEMA trailers, now used for storage. Driving by Gazzier Boat Yard, you find weeds and even small trees growing on the rusted, flaking shrimp boats that were abandoned, then seized after the storm. Coden, an unincorporated community contiguous with Bayou La Batre, is littered with abandoned homes. We stopped at an empty house that had what looked like faded blue streamers tied to its gutters. They were a shredded tarp.
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Hurricanes are visceral. You can kind of imagine duking it out with one. We met men on Dauphin Island whose dream is to ride out a hurricane in their home. During Katrina, Minh, a Vietnamese shrimp boat captain, docked in the bayou and stayed out the storm on his boat. “Katrina was nothing,” he said. “Worst case scenario, the water rises and the boat goes on land. The other scenario is that you sink. But you can’t sink that far ’cause the bayou’s not that deep.” Hurricanes reinforce a local identity, a sense of independence and resilience, and their drama and discrete nature is better suited to narrative than a seeping oil spill. There is disaster and aftermath. There are concrete steps to be taken, and there is straightforward work to be done.
Even before Gulf Coast beaches were declared open for swimming, you could ask a local to take you out to an isolated sandy point on Dauphin Island, just a few miles off the coast of Alabama, where you’d find picnicking families and a few sun-crisped men in Oakleys wading near their boats. To get there you’d pass a decontamination center and boats full of locals contracted by BP’s Vessels of Opportunity (you can tell because they’re wearing life jackets), but once you’d reached the beach, the only immediately visible sign of the disaster would be a lonely pair of yellow port-o-potties on the sandbank.
We were about half an hour into our swim when someone pointed out the layer of rainbow sheen atop the water. It surrounded us, floating slowly. No one made any motion to leave, but no one cracked another beer either. I asked one of the locals if he minded the sheen. “Nope.” Hours later, our hair and clothes felt thickly lotioned, which seemed worrisome, but not overly traumatic.
Later, at a barbecue, our host walked up to me, grinning obscenely like he had a dirty joke to tell. He handed me a tar ball. There was either a toothpick or a twig stuck in the thing, so I held it up, examined it, twirled it around, then tossed it into an abalone ashtray. Tar balls just aren’t that compelling.
When Alabama closed its waters to commercial fishing in early June due to contamination, the seafood industry came to a standstill. Many of Bayou La Batre’s fishermen spent the month of May scrambling to catch as much as possible, knowing that their waters would soon be off-limits. Many also went to the BP claims office to recoup their losses. In the beginning if you could prove you had income from the seafood industry, BP would throw $5,000 at you. “You could walk in, say ‘Hey I’m a fisherman, smell my hands,’ and they’d give you $5,000,” an oysterman told us. We heard rumors of waitresses receiving $5,000 for a month of lost tips, of a dental hygienist demanding compensation because she couldn’t enjoy the beach this summer. At the very beginning, one person’s questionable claim wouldn’t necessarily deprive others of their money. The $5,000 giveaway was good publicity, and it was doled out generously.
With the Vessels of Opportunity (VoO) program came bigger money for fewer people. BP set up the program as a way to utilize local fishing boats in the Deepwater Horizon spill cleanup. In early July, VoO had over 3,000 boats in its active fleet. According to the New York Times, over 900 of these were in Alabama, and nearly 300 in Bayou La Batre.
In 2000, the median income for a household in Bayou La Batre was $24,539. Through the VoO program, boat owners are paid between $1200 and $3000 a day, depending on the size of their boat. Each crewmember is paid an additional $200 a day. The first check that one 21-year-old son of an oysterman received from BP was for $23,000. He came home with $17,000 cash wadded in his pocket and took the day off to shop for a Hummer.
Some residents, realizing the money that could be made, bought and registered fishing boats solely for the purpose of applying to the program. Recreational boat owners took paid vacations from their jobs so they could work on the cleanup instead. Out-of-towners came to the coast to sign up for contracts. Meanwhile, commercial fishermen who hadn’t been accepted to VoO voiced their outrage at not being given priority, since it was their livelihood that was threatened. BP altered its application policies to privilege local commercial fisherman, but there were still divisions among locals, and between locals and interlopers. As less oil was found on the surface of the water, locals contracted by VoO were taken out of rotation, so the difference between the haves and the have-nots intensified.
“Y’all here for the spill?” waitresses asked us as they refilled our pint glasses of sweet tea. At first it seemed like a reaction to our conspicuousness: three New Yorkers with an unusually large collection of photo equipment and Moleskines, tediously scrolling the menu for items that didn’t come fried. But soon we found that most strangers were asked the same question, and that most of us really were there for the spill. Nearby tables and barstools were often filled by hefty cleanup workers from Texas, Northern Alabama, and the Carolinas. News vans were ubiquitous on the main drag. Makeshift signs outside empty buildings advertised legal advice for anyone affected by the spill. We were even told that people had been found posing as BP officials, charging fisherman fees to file claims or applications to VoO.
In one of the local cafes, they were selling sobering commemorative t-shirts that read: “We never knew the worth of water till the well leaked. Compliments of BP.” But the more popular design was the “First Annual BP Sponsored Tar Ball Rodeo” cartoon, a nod to the cancelled Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo. It reminded me of a Mad magazine illustration, lurid and drippy. In it a fisherman caught a whopping tar ball from a bright orange sea.
Bayou La Batre has never had much of an oil industry, but it did this summer. There was an unnerving bustle there. The money BP threw carelessly at Bayou La Batre and the resulting drama distracted from the more ominous reality of what will happen when BP pulls out. There was so much uncertainty, it was hard to even know how to talk about the long term.
When we met with Mayor Wright, we asked him if he saw anything positive in the future of Bayou La Batre. “I wish you wouldn’t have asked me that,” he said.