Along Gulf, spill still defines state of mind

ALONG THE GULF COAST --- In the small brick church across the road from the chocolate waters of Bayou Lafourche, the Rev. Joseph Anthony Pereira unbuttons his collar as the last parishioners pull out of the lot. Tonight, nearly a year after the BP oil spill began, he's asked his congregation of shrimpers and oil industry workers to think about lessons learned when survival is in jeopardy.


But Pereira doubts many from the 5 p.m. Mass are ready to take his Lenten message to heart.

"You speak about this to them because they forget what they went through," says Pereira, who pastors at St. Joseph's Church in Galliano, La., a community that ties its fortunes to the Gulf of Mexico. "Because BP has spoiled them, given them all this money, they've gone back to the old ways. They give them big bucks and they forget."

A year after BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 and triggering a four-month battle to cap the gusher, the people who make their lives along the Gulf coastline face variations of the trade-off that troubles Pereira.

They are eager to banish the spill to memory. But that is very different from being ready to forgive. They are proud to call themselves independent, yet unsettled to be relying on a company and government many distrust. They want nothing more than for things to go back to the way they used to be, and in some ways, they have.

But uncertainty lingers, and anger, too. What might be hidden under the waves? When, if ever, can people so tied to the water be made whole?

AT DAWN, the sky south of New Orleans is fringed with violet and pockets of thick fog mix with the odor from Chevron's Oronite fuel additives plant. But another 14 miles down Louisiana Highway 23, Mark Brockhoeft motors into a marshland that is its own world.

Mottled ducks erupt from the high grass. Redfish slice the water like torpedoes. Brockhoeft has plied this bayou as a fly fishing guide since 1993. But the familiar scene still kindles a smile.

"You can take it for granted," he says. "We did. Until we were about to lose it."

Before the spill was capped, thick slicks moved into Barataria Bay, about 10 miles south. The oil was the last in a series of setbacks for Brockhoeft, who before the past two recessions and Hurricane Katrina worked on the water 250 days a year. When BP flooded the region with money, he hired out his boat for the cleanup for $1,560 a day. He sent back customers' deposits and talked with friends about moving.

Crews kept the oil at bay long enough to keep these backwaters open to fishing and to cap the well. Now, when clients call to ask, Brockhoeft assures them that "it's beautiful. Come on down."

But the guide says he'll be glad this year to get bookings for more than 130 days on the water. And, while he's upbeat about the health of the estuary, he watches for signs oil and dispersant might eventually filter in.

"I wouldn't bank on the way things are going to be five years from now," he says. "We might not even be here."

ACROSS THE MISSISSIPPI River in Pointe a La Hache, oysterman Stanley Encalade is more certain of the spill's toll. Encalade and others say they are barely hanging on after officials flooded shellfishing grounds with river water to keep out the oil, killing oysters.

Before Katrina, Encalade says he made about $50,000 a year. But BP payments are based on the most recent years' business, when he was climbing out of hurricane-induced debt. So far, he's gotten a $12,000 check from the compensation fund.

Encalade worries it could be years before the oysters come back. So he's refitting his boat, Lady Pamela, with shrimping nets. But that is not a long-term answer.

"You're going to put me out of business for five or six years and you're going to pay me for the worst two years of my life? No man, I don't think so," Encalade says. "It's not over by a longshot."

In 2004, Melvin and Christy Barnes -- she's a former Allstate agent, he was a boiler operator -- used retirement savings to buy a seafood restaurant and market in Bay St. Louis, Miss.

Katrina put the restaurant, Cuz's, under more than 20 feet of water. The Barneses rebuilt and business was good enough that they employed 22 people.

But the spill closed waters that supplied much of the catch sold in the market. Customers stayed away from the restaurant, too, repulsed by the idea of eating Gulf seafood. Christy says they've lost "an easy half a million" in sales. The business now employs six -- its owners included.

When Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer supervising the BP spill compensation fund, met local business owners at the American Legion post in January, Melvin Barnes unloaded. Fund workers had lost his claim twice. They didn't seem to understand he was barely making it.

The Barneses have talked about closing and reopening inland, but doubt there would be as many customers for a seafood place. So they wait for an interim compensation offer to arrive.