Brown Tide: A Day on the Bayou
For over half a century the people of Bayou La Batre, Alabama have gathered for a ceremony that is both a celebration and a memorial. They pray for a safe and bountiful fishing season and remember those who have lost their lives in seasons past. This small fishing village does not have the sugar white beaches and sparkling high-rise condominiums so often associated with the Third Coast. For every Destin there are a dozen Bayou La Batre’s.
The people who live here work hard just to scrape by in a profession that is equal parts heritage and obsession. Ask anyone who has ever made a living on a boat and they will tell you once the sea gets in your blood there is no getting it out. Things have been particularly rough in Bayou La Batre after equal devastation from both Ivan and Katrina and now the looming oil spill.
My reason for venturing to the Bayou was to be a judge in the annual Gumbo Cook-off. But as the event neared it was obvious that I would be experiencing something much more than a gaggle of gumbo. Any thoughts I had of a blog post filled with flowery descriptions of spices and the richness of broth were now metaphorically obscured by crude oil. In this town full of rugged people I saw despair etched on the faces of everyone. As one festival organizer told me, the oil slick has, “certainly been the topic of conversation.”
Folks here have little trust in the government. For years they have endured stringent federal regulations supposedly designed to preserve the environment and protect American consumers. Meanwhile that same government has turned a blind eye to an avalanche of imported seafood teeming with toxic chemicals. The post-Katrina response from FEMA that had many in New Orleans crying foul would have seemed like a Godsend here. And now the same government which abandoned them five years ago has again drug its feet leaving the town in peril. The Obama administration told them the leak was a mere 1000 barrels a day when in reality it was 200,000. To them there is little difference between the current regime and its predecessor.
My fellow judges, locals both, regaled me with stories of the Blessing during the Reagen years. The whole town would pack the church yard standing shoulder to shoulder, a sea of people joined in jubilation and thanksgiving. Those days are gone now. Five years have passed since Katrina and the town is just now starting to look like it did prior to her arrival. Now this.
Of course the D.C. elitists have been on every talk show they could find saying that you cannot compare Deepwater Horizon to Katrina. I dare you to stand on the Bayou and say that without the luxury of a team of Secret Service agents. The great irony of the day was the uncharacteristic wind blowing directly off the Gulf. People around here recognize that strong and hot breeze; it is just like the one that hits as a hurricane is barring down on you. But this is a storm of a different complexion and its effects will not be measured in years but decades.
Amid all of the doom and gloom there was still a festive spirit among the crowd. They lined up to try the foods from their new neighbors from Central America and Southeast Asia. Blues musicians took the bandstand while people funneled into the church to sample the seafood that built the town. Artisans had erected a tent city to hock their wares as families ventured to the wharf to look at the shrimp boats decorated like Mardi Gras floats. Everywhere children laughed in played.
Virtually every resident in Bayou La Batre either works on a boat or at a business that’s sole purpose is to support the fishing industry. Fishing is the only game in town. Those of us who are a little long in the tooth realize we were saying goodbye to something. Before leaving, I spoke with Mark Kent a writer for the Mobile Press Register assigned to cover the event and he expressed his concerns saying that more than the economic and ecological devastation he was worried about the spirit of the people.