Disaster responders focus on spill needs

Frustrated By ‘Red Tape,’ Louisiana residents turning to private sources for BP Oil spill aid

BY JOHN PAPE | GRAND ISLE, LA | June 30, 2010

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill collects in the marshes of southeast Louisiana.
Credit: DNN/John Pape

Containment booms stretch across much of the southeast Louisiana coastline in an attempt to prevent oil from the BP spill from coming ashore.
Credit: DNN/John Pape

Frustrated by what they see as ineffective relief efforts from BP and the federal government, many Louisiana residents are turning to local nonprofit and faith-based groups for help in the wake of the ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Many of those hardest hit by the spill say aid efforts by BP and organizations like FEMA remain mired in red tape and little help is getting to those who have immediate needs.

A new charity called Deepwater Relief and a number of local faith-based groups have stepped forward to provide assistance for those who “fall between the cracks.”

In a region where local economies are dependent on pristine beaches and abundant fishing waters, many are concerned about the long-term – and some say irreparable – impact the spill will have on their livelihoods.

One area that has taken the brunt of the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico for more than two months is the small south Louisiana community of Grand Isle. Located on a barrier island accessible only by a toll bridge on Highway 1, Grand Isle is dependent on the fishing industry and catering to beach-going tourists.

Resident Henry Vidrine said the coastal community is accustomed to bouncing back after hurricanes, but the oil spill is something locals worry will put them out of business for good.

“After a hurricane, you rebuild. How do you rebuild after an oil spill?” Vidrine asked. “If they can ever get the oil out of the marshes – and that’s a big ‘if’ – how long will it take? We’ve got people here who make their living from those marshes and from fishing the Gulf. These aren’t wealthy people; they can’t go forever without a steady income.”

Vidrine called the spill “a disaster in slow motion” and the response “even worse.”

“Between BP and the government, I can’t really tell which one has more red tape. They’re both long on promises and paperwork, but short on help,” he said.

One of those who filed a claim with BP is Annette Rigaud of Sarah’s Diner, located along Highway 1 in the heart of Grand Isle. So far, no help has come her way.

“We’ve had four hurricanes in five years, and now this,” Rigaud said, motioning at a mostly-empty café.

With locals worried about their income and tourists staying away, Rigaud has seen the café business all but dry up. She said Grand Isle only has about 1,500 year-round residents, but summer tourism can bring in as many as 20,000 visitors spending money. Over the recent Memorial Day holiday, business at Sarah’s Café was down by as much as 80 percent, she said.

“A lot of us depend on (tourists) to make it. Without them, we can’t make ends meet,” Rigaud said.

To provide the fresh seafood her customers have come to expect, Rigaud now has to drive 3 – 4 hours rather than buying locally. As more fishing grounds are closed, prices are also going up.

“We’re caught in the middle,” Golden Meadow resident Stephanie Batiste said.

Batiste’s husband operates a fishing boat, but with much of the fishing water off Louisiana closed due to the spill, he has taken temporary work putting out containment booms.

“It’s a shame, a real shame what’s going on down here. I can’t help but wonder if it’s the end of a way of life,” Batiste said. “Most of the people who’re being put out of work live from paycheck to paycheck. They can’t wait two or three months for help.”

One organization that has stepped forward to help those put out of work in southern Louisiana is Horizon Relief. The brainchild of eighth-generation oysterman Kevin Voisin, Horizon Relief is funneling private donations to deckhands, dock workers, day laborers and others employed by the seafood industry who are unable to work as long as fishing is suspended by the spill.

“These are hard-working people who can’t wait 60-90 days until help from BP or the government kicks in,” Voisin said. “We can’t make them whole, but we can make things as stable as possible for them for the three months it takes for the other help to begin.”

Houma-based Horizon Relief has a goal of raising $2 million to give to those hardest-hit by the spill, with 90 percent of the donations going directly to spill victims.

In addition to accepting donations, Horizon Relief is raising funds through its “Vials of Opportunity” effort, which gives a vial of recovered BP oil to those who donate $25 or more, as well as the “1000 Bottles of Hope” program, where those donating $1,000 or more receive one of 1,000 limited edition bottles of recovered oil. The organization is also selling special “Horizon Relief” T-shirts for $20.

Despite being organized only three weeks ago, Horizon Relief is already providing financial assistance for people Voisin described as “slipping through the cracks.” Those are the same people Voisin said are being ignored in the media coverage of the BP spill.

“You see a lot of images of the broken well spewing oil, booms in the Gulf or animals covered with oil. My heart goes out to those animals, but it’s almost like the people being hurt the most are being overlooked,” he said.

Episcopal Relief & Development is also reaching out to spill victims. Working with Episcopal Community Services and its partner Bayou Grace Community Services, Episcopal Relief & Development is providing help in predominantly rural Terrebonne Parish, southwest of New Orleans.

Echoing the concerns expressed by Kevin Voisin, Program Manager for USA Disaster Preparedness and Response Katie Mears said her organization is working to provide aid to Terrebonne residents who “are falling through the cracks.”

“This is happening because they can’t access sufficient resources, whether because of transportation challenges, lack of information or uncertainty about the different avenues they might pursue for assistance,” Mears said.

Support being provided includes distributing grocery cards that can be redeemed for food at local stores, gas cards for those who need transportation help and direct food distribution from a local community center.

The food cards are from local grocers, allowing the benefits of the assistance to be felt throughout the community. So far, 100-150 families have been helped.

Additionally, volunteers will provide legal assistance, pastoral care and information referrals at the Bayou Grace office in the community of Chauvin, as well as from a mobile office provided by Episcopal Community Services of Louisiana. The mobile office – a recreational vehicle specially equipped to provide assistance – will travel throughout the Terrebonne Parish region on a set schedule, bringing information to those who are unable to travel to Chauvin.

ECSLA Executive Director Nell Bolton said her organization was “proud to support the resilient and hard-working residents of our fishing communities” whose livelihoods are threatened by the spill.

“As the long-term implications of the spill begin to sink in for all of us, we know that the church needs to be a steady partner through these challenging times. ECSLA is also fortunate to be in partnership with Bayou Grace, with whom we share many values and whose local networks are invaluable to being able to reach the people most in need of our help,” Bolton said.

Bolton added ECSLA is looking at ways to offer more help to those affected by the spill. A series of community dinners are being planned to give residents “a respite from the stresses and uncertainty of this situation.”

As the spill continues with no end in site, coupled with uncertainty over when Louisiana’s fishing grounds might re-open, the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church is gearing up to provide emotional support for the people of the state’s southeastern parishes.

The Rev. Darryl Tate, director of disaster preparedness, said volunteers are currently being recruited to provide spiritual assistance to those impacted by the spill, both local residents and clean-up workers. Specially trained clergy, lay people, mental health counselors and teachers will work in two-person “care teams.”

Tate stressed the teams will not be providing counseling, but instead will provide “spiritual and emotional care.”

“They will bring the presence of Christ into the midst of this crisis,” Tate said.

Training is scheduled for the third week in July, with care teams going into the heart of the impacted region beginning in August.

The teams will also distribute some 6,000 Bible packets called “Bags of Hope,” each containing a New Testament donated by the general church's United Methodist Men, an Upper Room Devotional donated by the Upper Room, and a list of churches and pastors in such communities as Buras, Grand Isle and Dulac.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) will also be providing some 1,900 school supply kits for children in Plaquemines Parish, Grand Isle and Dulac. The goal is to have the school supplies delivered in time for the start of the 2010-11 school year.

Betty Backstrom, director of communications for the Louisiana Conference of The United Methodist Church, said volunteers are being sent into areas affected by the oil spill to provide expanded summer programs for children.

So far, volunteers from Christ United Methodist Church in Jackson, MS., First United Methodist Church in Homer, La. and First United Methodist Church in Jonesboro, Ark. have volunteered to help provide youth programs at Trinity United Methodist Church in the hard-hit community of Buras.

Additionally, volunteers from First United Methodist Church in Pineville, La., Ferriday/Vidalia United Methodist Church in Vidalia, La., First United Methodist Church in Benton, La. and First United Methodist Church in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. will be working with young people in the small town of Dulac.

Most of the volunteers will be doing Vacation Bible Schools, while some will be providing afternoon youth sports camps.

In addition, the Louisiana UMC Conference has hired Tabitha Mill as a summer youth director for Plaquemines Parish. She will be working through Trinity UMC in Buras providing youth ministry opportunities for the children and youth of that parish.

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