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Spill imperils a distinctive culture: 'There's a sense of doom'

By Drew Jubera, Special to CNN
  • The 36-day oil spill may end a way of life in the bayous of southern Louisiana
  • "It might be a year before they clean it all up. It might be five years. It might be longer."
  • "Every red wave that washes in, I feel helpless."

(CNN) -- Talk to Jack Fillinich and you'll hear it. It's Sunday morning and he's sitting in front of the single-story house in Golden Meadow, Louisiana, that he's lived in his whole life. He's 69. He's wearing slippers, jeans and no shirt, repairing a shrimp net. And he's repairing a shrimp net on a Sunday morning with no shirt on because that's what he's always done: fix nets, build boats, go fish.

But talk to him and you'll hear it -- the creeping sense that the unfolding oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, even after all the natural disasters he's seen roar through this wonderously hard-luck region, might be last call.

"This one's different," Fillinich says. "A storm comes, you fix the damage and you're rolling again. This, it might be a year before they clean it all up. It might be five years. It might be longer. We don't know."

Fillinich's dad fished here. Now his son fishes here.

Beyond that:

"My days are numbered, it doesn't matter about me," he says, his own boat across the two-lane in front of his house, bobbing in Bayou Lafourche. "But my son, he's 41. And he has a son.

"It looks like it's going to stop there."

Lives and livelihoods have been lost, and now the explosion of the BP oil rig and the 36-day spill imperil what is perhaps the country's most distinctive regional culture.

Extending south of New Orleans like a vast watery Great Plains, through marshes and bayous all the way to the Gulf, this part of southern Louisiana is a place like nowhere else.

There are fifth-generation fishermen who still speak French better than they speak English. Many live in houses built on the same land where their parents and grandparents and great grandparents lived -- and to which their own children and grandchildren cling.

The culture draws from an improvised, recipe-be-damned mix that includes Cajun, Creole, Croatian, Vietnamese, Spanish, African-American and Houma Indian. It has its own music, it's own patois (one roadside sign: "Who Dat Eggroll"), and its own cuisine -- a cinder block restaurant along one bayou proudly advertises "Frog Legs, Turtle Meat, Hog Cracklin'." Towns are more like villages, villages more like extended family.

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"I can go into any one of those houses and eat, or take a nap, whenever I want to," says oysterman Byron Encalade, pointing to the homes that dot tiny Pointe a la Hache, a predominantly African-American enclave accessible only by boat or ferry on the east bank of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish. "If my brother wants to build a house in back of my house, I let him build it."

These are people used to living in isolation, and used to surviving disaster. They tick off the names of hurricanes that leveled their communities as if they were their own wayward children: Flossy, Betsy, Katrina, Gustav. It seemed there was nothing they couldn't handle.

Until this spill. It threatens to wipe out Louisiana's $2.4 billion commercial seafood industry and tens of thousands of jobs. Oysterman Buck Battle, who lost his house to Katrina, calls the oil spill "the monster of monsters."

"I've never heard so much fear in people's voices," says Mike Tidwell, author of "Bayou Farewell," which chronicled southern Louisiana's long legacy of environmental problems. "A hurricane is an event with a beginning, a middle and an end. This is more like a nuclear accident offshore and a radiation cloud is coming in.

"Nobody knows what the consequences will be. There's a sense of doom."

Talk to Byron Encalade and you'll hear it. Encalade, 55, grew up in Pointe a la Hache, population a couple hundred. It's where, he says, the Mississippi River was "my private swimming pool," and as a toddler he handed nails to his grandfather while he built a boat in the front yard.

Later, while kids off the bayou wanted "a great big Cadillac, with a TV antenna in the back," his friends in Pointe a la Hache dreamed of "a Lefitte skiff and some oyster beds. And if I got a Chevy pickup, too, I'd be in hog heaven."

Encalade says his two children paid for their college educations working on the boats every summer. "A lot of people say we don't have much education, and that's true. But we're smart enough to educate our children."

Now that means to an end is threatened. "You're talking about putting the whole fishing industry out of business," says Encalade, who owns two boats and a seafood trucking business. "They talk about alternative jobs. There are no alternative jobs for these fishing communities."

Like many people here, Encalade sees this disaster, much like Katrina, as decades in the making. Louisiana's wetlands, which can serve as buffers against storms and oil spills, were already disappearing at an alarming rate -- about 24 square miles a year. Since 1932, Louisiana has lost about 2,000 square miles, or land roughly the size of Delaware.

Much of erosion has been caused by levees built to control the Mississippi River flooding, as well as the dredging done by oil and gas companies for their ships and rigs. Repeated natural disasters just pile on the hurt: Hurricanes Rita and Katrina erased about 200 square miles, Tidwell says.

"It has been an ecological disaster for 50 years," he adds. "It could be climaxing now with this spill."

Talk to Tamara Augustine or Tricia Hurdle and you'll hear it.

Augustine became manager of Grand Isle State Park seven months ago. Located on the state's only inhabited barrier island, it drew 100,000 visitors a year until it's beach was battered by a series of hurricanes: Katrina, Rita, Gustav. After years of working to reclaim it, the fully restored beach reopened in early April -- less than a month before the spill.

This is more like a nuclear accident offshore. ... Nobody knows what the consequences will be.
--Mike Tidwell, author of "Bayou Farewell"

Now the beach is closed. White caps are red with oil, and bright brown globs stain the sand; parts of the beach look more like the floor of a mechanic's garage after an oil change.

"I'm still numb," Augustine says. "Every red wave that washes in, I feel helpless. I see it washing up and there's nothing I can do.

"My favorite thing to do was go out on the pier," adds Augustine, who lives in the park. "It was almost like standing in the Gulf. I would watch the dolphins feeding, the pelicans overhead. It's an amazing sight.

"A few weeks ago, some Boy Scouts were here, fishing for the first time. One caught a 36-inch bull red. Now they can't fish because of the oil. They can't enjoy the new beach and the water.

"Instead of giving hope and joy, it's a horror."

Still, Saturday night, with a breeze blowing off the water, people lined the bridge leading into Grand Isle, their fishing poles dipped toward the channel below. Speckled trout teemed in the overhead lights -- right beside snaking booms laid out only hours earlier to sop up oil. Some were already saturated.

But hardly a minute went by without somebody pulling out a fish. A group of kids started yelling and scrambled down the side of the bridge to help haul up by hand a redfish too big to reel in.

"We came last night and caught them, ate them and we're good. So we're back catching more," said Tricia Hurdle, 35, mother of two of the kids. Two others belonged to her brother.

They'd made the three-hour drive to their Grand Isle fishing camp from Rosedale, Louisiana, the day after the kids got out of school for summer. Hurdle and her brother have come here "since we were babies."

Their kids built sand castles on the beach when they arrived. But so much oil had washed up by the next day that a sheriff's deputy shooed them back into the house.

"It's what we do all summer," said Hurdle, who works in marketing. "This is Louisiana. The marshes and the Gulf and shrimping and fishing. The kids can just be kids here. That's what you want for them.

"This is so sad," she added. "Summer's over and it's just beginning."

The fishing industry and the oil and gas industry have co-existed in Louisiana for decades. The state produces more shrimp, blue crabs and oysters than anywhere else in the country. It also produces or transports more than a third of the nation's oil.

Wesley Matherne, 70, retired after 50 years in the oil business. He also worked as a fisherman. Now one of his sons is a commercial fisherman, another works for an oil company. Households like that can be found all over this part of Louisiana.

So while people are angered by the spill and BP's inability to fix it, the last thing they want is for the oil industry to go away. Too many people's livelihoods depend on it. Too many fishermen depend on it.

"Without oil and diesel, we can't do fishing," Matherne said. "We need both of them."

Jody Auenson, 42, is a guide fisherman in Golden Meadow who couldn't go out on Sunday for the first time because of the spill. He fishes 250 days a year, then does some welding to make ends meet. But if the spill shuts down more water, he'll need to find something else.

Asked what he'll do, Auenson didn't hesitate. "Hopefully," he said, "go work for BP."

Talk to anybody and what you'll also hear is this: Despite the fear and uncertainty and growing anger, they're staying.

"I can't imagine trying to live somewhere else," said Battle, the oysterman in Pointe a la Hache. "This is home. You can't turn tail on home."

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