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In Gulf oil disaster, cameras can't capture the human toll

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
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'Corrosive communities' emerge in Gulf
  • Forget about oil, wildlife, the economy and environment; think about people, communities
  • Early signs show rise in depression, domestic violence, substance abuse and more
  • "Corrosive communities," marked by distrust, emerge from manmade disasters, expert says
  • Stops along Gulf show how residents cope, or fail to, and what insiders say people need

Along the Gulf of Mexico (CNN) -- The family business has closed, and the couple can't work -- for themselves or for BP, it seems. Their neighbors and community leaders, she says, are showing a kind of greed she's never seen before. They aren't the people she thought they were.

"Everyone's out for themselves," says the woman, who like many in her small Alabama town has a lot to say but won't say it except anonymously. "I was telling my husband the other night that I'll be glad when the Lord calls me home. I'll be glad to leave this place."

For a moment, forget about saving wildlife. Think not about the oil, the well, the sullied waters. Put aside any blame of corporations or government and dismiss projections about what will happen to the economy or the environment. Plenty of experts, officials with impressive titles and everyday people in the Gulf Coast and around the country are losing sleep over these matters.

Think instead of another tragedy-in-the-making, fallout from the oil disaster that can't be seen by cameras and is not easily measured by scientists with fancy equipment.

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It's the sort of effect that may not be felt or discussed openly until long after the boom and skimmers disappear and the media trucks pull away. It is the emotional and social toll on individuals, the price families may pay and how communities are bound to suffer if residents don't take care of each other.

From the front steps of his home in Orange Beach, Alabama, no more than 400 yards from the Gulf of Mexico, J. Steven Picou peers into the future.

The environmental sociologist has spent decades studying the human impact of manmade or technological disasters. For 21 years, he's tracked the residents of Cordova, Alaska, whose community was deeply wounded by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. And while every disaster and every community is different, he can't ignore the signs of what's to come.

"It's like the table is set," he says. "And now we're going to be served with this 15- to 20-year-course meal of problems."

Among the woes to be dished out: depression, marital problems, family violence, crime, substance abuse and suicides.

Those personal and social ills rise when disasters of this kind rock communities, according to extensive studies conducted by Picou, a professor at the University of South Alabama, and colleagues like him.

The good news, he and others say, is that the Gulf Coast -- no stranger to disaster -- has shown resilience before. Time and again, residents here have banded together to rebuild. Many of the resources and organizations mobilized to help after hurricanes are already in place.

But this time around, the disaster is different, and it comes when the wounds of Hurricane Katrina remain fresh. It was avoidable, not a machination of Mother Nature.

Blame can be heaped on thick, passed around and debated. There's no end in sight, no guarantees that life will return to what it was. And the questions of what's to come loom, like anvils.

How bad things can get

Just a few miles from Picou's home, a boat named "Rookie" sits idle in the marina at Zeke's Landing. It is a symbol of how bad things can get. On June 23, charter fishing boat captain William Allen "Rookie" Kruse, 55, shot and killed himself.

Kruse, who'd taken a job with BP's "Vessels of Opportunity" cleanup program, didn't leave a note, but family and friends say the disaster devastated him.

"He honestly thought we would not have the Gulf of Mexico anymore. He would not see it to fish in it again," says Tom Steber, the marina's general manager, who knew Kruse going back to high school.

But suicide? That should have never been an option, Steber says, and what happened to his friend should serve as a lesson.

"Go talk to somebody. Don't get down to the point where you think you got to do that," he says. "You got all kinds of friends everywhere. Just go talk to them."

The first suicide in Alaska known to be connected to the Exxon Valdez disaster came four years after the spill when the former Cordova mayor, Bob Van Brocklin, ended his life. Kruse's death was 65 days into the Gulf's oil disaster.

"We almost have Exxon Valdez fast forward here along the Gulf of Mexico," Picou says.

Concern about communities sends Picou on an 80-mile drive west to Bayou La Batre, a small fishing town on the opposite side of Mobile Bay. He's traveling around the Gulf Coast to where people are hurting -- to start conversations, impart what he's learned and teach people how to listen to each other. It's a response modeled after programs devised in Alaska.

We are in a marathon, and I would say that the gun has just gone off.
--J. Steven Picou, environmental sociologist

"Unlike a natural disaster where you have a therapeutic community emerging to help you rebuild, we know that in Alaska a corrosive community emerged," he says. "All of a sudden you have this incredible collapse of community capital."

He describes how people may self-isolate to cope and how their distrust of others will grow and likely spread. Cynicism about BP, he says, will move on to the federal government, the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, local governments, neighbors. Even family.

He recalls the "spillionaires," those who profited by leasing out their boats to help with the the Alaska cleanup and how they were "also called Exxon whores by their cousins, brothers and fathers."

"Communities are disrupted" by the strangers who come in after a technological disaster, Picou says.

When Picou first went to Alaska in 1989, he was 45 and his knees were good. His legs, at 65, now bear scars from replacement surgeries. He looks out toward the Gulf and shares details about some of the dreams he's been having about oil. One left him covered in the stuff after he fell off a bridge while hiking and landed in water.

"I probably won't see the end of this one," he says of the Gulf oil disaster and the toll he expects it to take. "Essentially we are in a marathon, and I would say that the gun has just gone off."

Signs of corrosion appear

Spanish moss hangs from trees that line the main road in Bayou La Batre, a town of 2,300 with a welcome sign calling it the "Seafood Capital of Alabama." There are homes that go back generations, a boarded-up motel and what appears to be more places to pray than there are to eat. A pile of shells from shucked oysters stands more than 30 feet high along the bayou that is the town's namesake, and broken shells can be found mixed with gravel in driveways.

In this place, plenty of people won't talk on the record. At the crowded city docks and along Coden Bayou, two launching sites for the "Vessels of Opportunity" program, not one will speak to media.

"I'd love to talk to you, but BP won't let me," one woman calls out from a ramshackle boat, after looking around to make sure no officials are in earshot.

But visit people on their porches at dusk, talk to them in hushed tones in corners or through fences and signs of Picou's "corrosive community" begin to appear.

It's the kind of place where people are familiar, where the police captain might be seen helping out in the kitchen or answering a phone at the Lighthouse Restaurant after his shift is over. Fishermen whose granddaddies knew each other gather at Donna's Grocery at dawn, grabbing coffee and catching up before heading out to work for BP. A cafe owner sits down with guests as if they're visiting her home.

Is this sense of community sustainable, though?

On a porch that runs the length of his house, a skeptic sips an iced-cold soda at sunset, surrounded by his family. He shares his distrust of the state and local government. A business owner down the road a ways talks about the "crack-heads" who are raking in cash and crashing cars. People mutter about fraudulent BP claims and neighbors who are scheming for dollars.

And though changes have been made to make the situation more equitable, those who've worked these waters for a living still complain about the doctors, lawyers and people rumored to be from as far away as Minnesota and Maine who swooped in with their recreational boats and snagged BP cleanup jobs they say should have been theirs from the get-go.

At the Bayou La Batre Police Department, the 14-man team is stretched thin. Not only do they serve the town, which has been a magnet for outsiders, but their jurisdiction covers an additional 10,000 people living outside it. Behind his desk, Chief of Police John Joyner Jr. says he doesn't know when he'll find time to run reports and know exactly how crime is changing here.

He can say, however, that the daily population in Bayou La Batre has just about doubled. Outside contractors, visiting officials, BP command post workers and others have flooded the place. Over the past few months, calls for service -- seeking security detail for dignitaries, simple driving directions or responses to crimes and fender benders -- have gone up 100 percent.

Increased cash flow means there's been a dip in property crimes, but drug and alcohol use has bumped up by about 20 to 30 percent, Joyner guesses.

The bigger problems, he predicts, will come later -- after the BP jobs dry up and if the water remains contaminated.

From his office down the hall, Capt. Darryl Wilson agrees. Right now, he says, "Some guys are making more in a week than they'd make in a month."

When these paychecks, which aren't having taxes withheld, stop and the IRS comes knocking, he says, there's no telling what havoc will unfold.

"Why you need outreach"

Bayou La Batre is just one stop along the Gulf, one sliver of land and life amid the coastline states where oil and all it portends has come ashore and threatened futures. Going from place to place, one can find other harbingers of the way people cope or fail to.

At a coffee shop in Foley, Alabama, a 39-year-old member of the Gulf Coast chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous hates to think about what she'd be doing if she didn't already have nine years of sobriety.

"Alcoholics are always looking for an excuse to drink," she says. What's happening in the Gulf "would have given me a great reason to drink. I would have rode this one pretty darn hard."

Alcoholics are always looking for an excuse to drink. ... I would have rode this one pretty darn hard.
--Member of Gulf Coast Alcoholics Anonymous

Two states over, Beth Meeks, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, shares tales of shelters filling up, of lost funding and growing daily calls to hot lines.

An out-of-work shrimper's wife says her husband is angry all the time. The wife of a laid-off oil-rig worker, who's used to him being away for weeks at a time, can't get a reprieve. The abuse is getting worse for one woman, but she feels more trapped than ever because there's no income for her and the kids, and she already feels she overstayed her welcome with friends and relatives after Katrina.

It's not that the oil disaster is creating abuse where it didn't exist before, Meeks says. But given heightened stress levels among offenders who are home more than before, it's no wonder the state hot line has seen a greater than 20 percent uptick in calls -- the bulk coming from the southern part of the state closest to the Gulf. And a shelter in Lafayette, an inland city heavy with oil workers, got 200 more calls in the eight weeks after the oil disaster started than it did in the eight weeks before.

If the people in this region are anything like those in Alaska, and Picou thinks they are, the sociologist doesn't think they're the types that will immediately seek out help.

"These are independent, hard-working people, who feel that they do not need to go to a shrink," Picou says. "That's why you need outreach."

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals sent a request to BP in late June, seeking $10 million to provide mental health services to the state's residents. That request was denied.

Catholic Charities, affiliated with the Archdiocese of New Orleans, applied for a separate $12 million grant from BP -- one that would bolster their response work, as well as the work of 27 other nonprofit agencies. About $1.2 million of that would be earmarked for crisis counseling. As of Friday, BP had not responded to the application.

This struggle to find buy-in for mental health needs makes Liz McCartney smirk and shake her head in exasperation.

She is the co-founder of St. Bernard Project, a New Orleans-area nonprofit established after Katrina that's dedicated to helping families rebuild their lives, physically and emotionally. People have been "re-traumatized" by the oil disaster, she says, which is why her agency recently launched a peer-to-peer counseling program to train and empower community members so they can reach out to their own and de-stigmatize the need for mental health services.

After already giving $20 billion for lost jobs, McCartney says, BP has a great and relatively cheap opportunity to help affected communities by answering requests for counseling support.

"It's such a quick win," she says. "It's such an easy way for BP to demonstrate to people that they care not only about fixing the environment and making sure wildlife is taken care of but that people matter."

Less than 15 miles away from McCartney's office, Larry Carbo sits in large wooden rocking chair. It features carvings of the phrase "Who Dat" and multiple fleur-de-lis symbols, meant to honor the Super Bowl championship-winning New Orleans Saints. He's on a porch beside St. Bernard Catholic Church, and the din of chirping crickets surround him.

Since mid-May, the retired New Orleans fire captain has been serving as one of Catholic Charities' six mental health crisis counselors responding to the oil disaster. It's the kind of work he began doing after Katrina, when firefighters from New York -- who'd done response work after Sept. 11 -- taught him the importance of listening and being there for others.

He's heard it all. Kids are acting up. Couples are fighting. Men are hitting the bottle or the ones they love. A fisherman who can't stand not working admits he's thinking about suicide.

"Just by talking, just by us listening to them, it's a great relief. Most people will tell you right now that they don't have anybody to listen to them," Carbo says. "I'll keep doing this as long as they need me. I'll be here."

"Not a happy camper"

Raymond Barbour, 55, sits in his humble office on a quiet street named Faith. Junior Barbour Seafood in Coden, Alabama, outside Bayou La Batre, is the business he began with his daddy, whom he watched die working in the place.

Next door is his new house, raised high on cinder-block pylons. The original home he was born in was carried away by Hurricane Frederic in 1979; the next one by Katrina five years ago.

Most people will tell you right now that they don't have anybody to listen to them.
--Larry Carbo, crisis counselor with Catholic Charities

Ask him how he's doing, and Barbour will talk about his crabmeat and oyster business. He'll tell you what he's losing each month. He'll wonder if he'll have to shut down and worry about his 50 workers. He'll add kind words about officials looking out for folks and let you know that he still gets his gas at BP because he likes the product.

But ask him if he's sleeping or how his marriage is going, and Barbour opens up.

If he's lucky, he gets two hours of sleep a night. The Ambien a doctor prescribed isn't doing a thing. And his relationship with his wife of 37 years? Well, like his business, he sometimes worries whether it'll survive the oil disaster.

"I'm probably not a happy camper to be around at times. It just affects you that way. It takes a little bit of something that makes you go off, and it's not right to her. And I know that," he says. "When it's all said and done, I'll probably need to be on one of those couches with one of those doctors trying to find out what all this has done to me."

He says this with a laugh. He doesn't want people to worry about him. And minutes later, Barbour is on the phone, back to trying to save his business.