Walking the Beach

Walking the Beach
BP Surveillance Team in Pass Christian on Memorial Day Weekend

Monday, June 28, 2010

My Journey to Venice, Louisiana

I started on my journey to Venice, Louisiana at 9am (EST) on the morning of June 28, 2010. It was a beautiful, if warm, and sunny morning. I had packed the night before, so all that remained was to bid adieu to my loving wife and kids and hit the open highway. I had been anticipating this trip from some time -- I was interested to search for what was true and what had been embellished; what was accurate, and what has been slanted to meet certain agendas.

Additionaly, I wanted to see how folks were coping with the impending incursion of oil into their lives and livelihoods; into their physical and psychological spaces. On one of my only stops on the way to Venice, I bought a newspaper (Montgomery Advertiser, Montgomery, Alabama) at a service station. The front page of the paper had, among its headlines, this: " Psychological toll mounts from oil spill." The article talked about the plight one shrimper, Ricky Robin, trying desperately to cope with in the aftermath of Katrina, and the still unfolding Gulf oil disaster. Robin, the article infers, is typical of some of the toughest fishers and shrimpers in the gulf -- people who have made a living, and crafted lives out of communing with the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and who rarely seek the assistance of mental health professionals.

My journey down to Venice was not an easy one, however, it pales in comparison to the challenges now facing many members of the coastal communities along the Gulf. But let me pause for just a moment to tell you about my trip to Venice, which is in some ways illustrative of the parable of today's blog. I drove for 550 miles to get to Venice, from Atlanta -- at times it rained so hard that the traffic was reduced to a crawl. After arriving in southern Louisiana, my trusted GPS instructed me to a back road, near a levee that contained the Mississippi River. The weather conditions had deteriorated, and the river was angry, swells and currents rose and fell rapidly, lightening flashed and thunder clapped all around the levee. I was delivered to a ferry boat location -- and as if on queue, upon my arrival there sat the vessel of opportunity (sorry I couldn't resist) -- pitching and tossing as I droves unsteadily aboard. I parkerd the car and called my wife of 11 years, and promised my undying love to her and the kids...and prayed I would make it across safely. The picture above is of the ferryman, and, I, with no coins in my pockets, worried that perhaps he would carry me only so far, and dispose of me, with the rest, at the bottom of the river.

Alas, we made it across and I was able to continue my journey to the coast...no sooner had I re-engaged my the GPS did I realize that not only was I on the wrong side of the river but also that I would have to cross the river again...and there were no bridges, which meant that it would have to be a ferry...again. Fortunately, the wind had subsided, and the river was less angry than before -- the crossing went off without a hitch.

I take the time to share this story with you because I imagine that getting to the truth of what is going on with this oil spill will require just as much perseverance.

When I finally arrived, it was nearly 6 pm (CST) -- I was tired and hungry. My roommates, other NWF professionals and I had a quick bite to eat and went to visit 25 year boat captain, Mike Frenette, pictured to the left with yours truly. Talking to Mike was, at first tense, as we felt each other out, and then relaxed as we found our rhythm, and a shared sense of outrage about the disaster. As a charter boat captian, Mike is not a commercial fisherman, like Robin in the earlier story I related to you. Mike is s professional fisherman who hires out his fish finding and catching expertise to those interested in fishing adventures. He is one of the first, if not there first charter boat captains in Venice. He and his lovely wife welcomed us in this home and we talked about nearly an hour about the challenges that charter boat captains are facing in the wake of the oil disaster.

As Mike put it -- in Katrina, the fishermen lost the infrastructure to carry on their work. But, he continues, infrastructure can was was rebuilt. In this case, the oil spill is preventing fishermen from getting to the "resource" (fish, shrimp, crabs oyster, etc) -- what is more, the resource is being destroyed at an alarming rate, and it is not certain when, or if in the foreseeable future, fishermen will be able to return to their livelihood. Mike told me that the boats have not gone out (for fishing) since the disaster occur -- this is day 70 of the disaster! Mike is angry, frustrated and determined to make a difference, he has testified before congress, and is an articulate spokesperson for why it is important to preserve one of the disappearing acts of our society.

While there is currently no visible oil in Venice (see the map below) , about a mile off the coast, oil sheen has been seen. In some of the bays and canals around the Venice area, oil is being found in increasing quantity. Oil is making it way into the marches of Louisiana -- the marshes serve as a nursery to many species of the Gulf. Many species of mammal, fish, reptiles and birds have habitats in the marsh-lands of the gulf , which suggest that not just this generation of wildlife will be impacted, but future generations of wildlife will be impacted as well.

Finally, people down here are tired of the media circus -- which once filled a pavilion outside Crawgators', one of the local eateries, and now has slowed to a trickle -- the people want action...they want to be understood...they want people to make the journey to Venice, in their own way, for their own reasons -- no matter how twisty or turny it is, no matter how many ferrymen one has to pay to get to the reality of the unfolding disaster in the Gulf.

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