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Stories Told by Gulf Residents Burst BP's PR Bubble

Peter Lehner

Posted October 20, 2010 in Moving Beyond Oil, Reviving the World's Oceans

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“If this whole environment gets demolished, what good is a boat?” That’s the question raised by George Barisich, a third-generation commercial shrimper from Louisiana and president of the United Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance in a story recorded by a partnership of StoryCorps, NRDC, and Bridge the Gulf.

The boat George describes was built by his father and launched the same month he was born. “It survived hurricanes,” he says. “It survived Katrina, it survived Gustav. It survived many regulations. But it may not survive this BP thing.”

George’s story is part of series of recordings we’ve done of Gulf residents talking about life after the spill. Listening to them reminded me of my first trip to Louisiana after the blowout.  The most powerful moments weren’t when I flew over the Deepwater Horizon rig or traveled by boat through oil soaked wetlands, but the times I got to listen to shrimpers, fishermen’s wives, and boat captains tell me what it was like to be on the frontlines of the spill.

Stories like these drive home the reality that the BP disaster has hijacked people’s lives, and it will take a long, long time before many folks land on firm ground.

NRDC made an early commitment to bring the voices of Gulf residents into the national conversation. BP tried to gloss over their struggles and keep them out of the press. But we knew that unvarnished personal accounts of living with the disaster would help burst the bubble of the oil giant’s $100 million ad campaign.

It’s hard to believe the BP could ever “make it right” when you hear someone like Wendy Wilson Billiot, the owner of a Bayou guiding service and fishing camp, be interviewed by her 14-year-old son, Seth.

Wendy explains that she is the sole breadwinner for her family, now that her husband has early-onset Alzheimer’s. Her guide business and fishing camp was booked through April, May, and June of 2010, but soon after the spill, everyone cancelled.

Wendy has gained a new sense of vulnerability. “Something else I have realized is how precarious our lives are here on the Gulf Coast… We have to appreciate what we have. We have to respect the bounty. We have to conserve it, all the while enjoying it. Because something like a failed blowout preventer could change all of that in an instant. Poof. It could just be gone.”

George also talks about the precariousness of life after the spill. He describes how even though shrimping grounds are open again, he only say 11 boats out where they used to be 110. “The only ones who’ll survive are the ones who had stuff paid for before the slump. If you have boats with notes, you didn’t make it.”

But the series also makes it clear that the spill hasn’t just affected people who make their living on the water. You can hear poet Peter Cooley, a professor of English and director of Creative Writing at Tulane, describe how images of pelicans being pulled out of the black water have haunted him and worked their way into his poetry.

Or stay tuned for a story from Harry Shearer, political satirist and the voice of several Simpson characters, and another from Oliver Houck, a law professor from Tulane who for decades has been standing up for communities and the environment against oil industry exploitation.

These other stories offer a vivid reminder of the cost of America’s unchecked drive for more and more oil. As actor Ryan Reynolds said in a recent video for NRDC, people in the Gulf “are the ones paying the highest price for a gallon of gas.”

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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