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BP oil spill: The legacy

BP spill consequences differ for two Louisiana cities

Adriene Hill Apr 20, 2011
BP oil spill: The legacy

BP spill consequences differ for two Louisiana cities

Adriene Hill Apr 20, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: A year ago tonight, about 9:45 central time, a cloud of methane gas swept over the drilling platform of Deepwater Horizon. It came from an oil leak a mile down. The flames from the explosion were visible 35 miles away. They were just the beginning of what’s been another very long year along the Gulf Coast. But how bad it was depended very much on where you were.

We sent a pair of reporters out to discover how the spill affected two separate communities in Louisiana. Eve Troeh went to the bayous along the coast. But Adriene Hill starts us off from New Orleans.

Adriene Hill: I’m at Commander’s Palace, one of New Orleans’ best-known restaurants. Its menu is full of local seafood done up fancy. The sous chef behind me is making Creole cream cheese infused gnocchi that’ll pair with fresh crawfish. Mmm. The restaurant’s been around since 1880. And a year ago, when the oil started spewing…

Tory McPhail: April, May, June, all of us were freaking out. I had conversations with the owners, and we said to ourselves, OK what are we going to do when we have to close?

Tory McPhail is the chef here. Now, a year later, those conversations seem premature — really, really premature. Seafood kept coming in to the restaurant, with some exceptions.

McPhail: There’s a huge crisis for shrimp right now because nobody’s shrimping.

But McPhail says the seafood that is available is pristine. And people keep showing up to eat it.

McPhail: We had a good year last year, probably the best summer we’ve had since Katrina.

In spite of the oil spill — and perhaps in some ways because of it — 2010 for New Orleans was a bit of boom year. The final count isn’t in, but tourism officials say they had the highest number of visitors since the city flooded. The appeal, in part, is that New Orleans didn’t stop to wring its hands. It just got on with life, and to-dos like the Tennessee Williams Festival.

Tennessee Williams Festival: Stella!

And a much less high-brow gathering for people who like dressing up as pirates.

“Pirate:” Argh!

Jennifer Day: The music was still playing, you could still get amazing seafood, the architecture is as beautiful as ever. So we had to work very hard to let the public know that New Orleans was unaffected by the oil spill.

That’s Jennifer Day. She’s not a pirate. She is with the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. We sit outside at 10 in the morning — a musician is already playing jazz on the street corner. Day says the city’s marketing and PR was helped along by $5 million in BP money.

Day: Our number one talking point was New Orleans is 100 miles away from the coast. When you look at New Orleans, you see water surrounding the city. That is not the Gulf of Mexico, that is fresh water.

The tourism office came up with ads-with slogans like, “Things in New Orleans are normal, well, OUR normal.” Which is mostly true.

Michael Hecht: There were some short-term and some potential long-term benefits, if you want to call it that, of the oil spill.

Michael Hecht heads Greater New Orleans, Inc., an economic development group. He says right after the spill, businessmen and lawyers packed their best suits and moved to the city to handle oil spill-related business and lawsuits — boosting the commercial real estate market. And, Hecht says, the spill and Katrina before it have helped point to possible future growth for the New Orleans area economy: environmental restoration and disaster mitigation.

Hecht: Next time there’s an oil spill somewhere else in the world, it shouldn’t be a Dutch or a Taiwanese ship that’s servicing that event, it should be a Louisiana ship.

Hecht is optimistic about what he calls “sustainable industries” — companies that can capitalize on New Orleans’ unfortunate and extensive expertise in cleaning up. The city has options, but is still dependent on how the rest of the region fares.

For more on that, I’ll hand off to Eve Troeh in Lafourche Parish on the Gulf Cost.

Eve Troeh: I’m about 100 miles southwest of New Orleans in Cajun country.

The economy here is the Gulf of Mexico — getting oil and seafood out of it. At the local Swamp Stomp festival, oil and shipyard worker Darryl Dague says, despite the spill, people here are proud to do dangerous work.

Darryl Dague: We all know the risks. There’s nothing that would make these people down here change their mind or the way they live.

But in the past year life has changed around workers like Dague. When the rig exploded, the economy paused for clean up. The two lanes of the main highway were packed with trucks hauling huge nylon tubes to soak up oil, or…

Brennan Matherne: Buses carrying workers to the beach, all of BP’s equipment and operations that they were hauling in.

Lafourche Parish information officer Brennan Matherne. He says clean up work paid big.

Matherne: A lot of people made more money than they may have ever made in a year.

But that’s pretty much over now. Matherne says local officials are just starting to measure the spill’s impact — and whether Lafourche Parish can still live up to its motto:

Matherne: Feeding and fueling America.

Roxy Folse: This is our ice bin.

Roxy Folse is on the feeding side.

Folse: Jake’s Crab Shack.

For more than a decade she’s boxed up live crabs.

Folse: You treat ’em like a carton of eggs.

And ship them around the country.

Folse: At least 10,000 pounds.

Troeh: A day?

Folse: Yes.

After the spill, most crabbing waters shut down.

Folse: The areas that were open, they were being over-fished.

The few crabs caught were hard to sell.

Folse: Because people didn’t want Louisiana crabs. They were scared to eat ’em. We lost a lot of good markets.

She lost workers, too. Crab season starts next month, and only a quarter of her fishermen are back. Because no one knows if the catch will be good — worth the cost of fuel, traps and bait. If the season is bad…

Folse: I won’t be able to stay open.

Folse says this summer is make or break. From their quiet vessels, some fisherman are looking down the murky bayou waters toward the Gulf, where they could get offshore oil work.

That happens at Port Fourchon, a vast industrial zone of boat yards, cleaning bunkers, and helicopter pads that service rigs.

Chet Chaisson: Deepwater search and rescue. and that’s a training mission.

Chet Chaisson directs Port Fourchon. He says it’s still unclear how fast work will pick up on offshore oil rigs, after last year’s moratorium on drilling. To save jobs, port companies have transferred workers to other states, or overseas, or put them on busy work.

Chaisson: I don’t think there’s any more chipping and painting and sandblasting that can be done. That’s what they’ve been having their employees do, to be ready for when the permits come.

In the past year, 11 deepwater drilling permits were issued — compared to five per week before. Chaisson says thousands of jobs are on the line.

Chaisson: We have not been exploring and drilling new wells for new oil to continue producing the amount that we produce every day.

People in Lafourche mostly see the BP spill as one huge accident in half a century of Gulf drilling. Parish official Brennan Matherne says locals do care about the environment. But they care more about getting back to work.

Matherne: We take pride in our area, and if this is what our area is, then this is we’re proud of.

Besides, he says, what other option do they have?

I’m Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

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