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Bayou on the brink again

Even before the BP spill, storm damage and the encroaching oil industry tested a fragile Louisiana village's survival.

August 04, 2010|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

GRAND BAYOU, LA. — The Atakapa-Ishak people live just above water. There are no roads, no sidewalks, no mailboxes, just a stand of houses sprouting from spits of land in a sea of marsh grass. The only path in or out of Grand Bayou is by boat.

Rosina Philippe, 54, will tell you that when her father was a child, the village of 50 families about an hour south of New Orleans in Plaquemines Parish was even more isolated, accessible by one narrow canal so densely canopied by live oaks that children could scramble across them to get from one house to another.

Grand Bayou abided that way for years -- branches entwined, roots fingering deep into the fertile mud that nourished shrimp, crab, tadpoles, oysters, alligators, nutria rats and otter. Families spoke English and Cajun French and earned a living fishing and trapping. They built schools out of cypress planks, sent a yellow school boat to gather the children and shopped in towns called Port Sulphur and Belle Chasse, lugging home 10-pound bags of coffee and 50-pound bags of rice.

All the while, Philippe watched the oil and gas companies march through, their dredges and barges hauling heavy equipment. They riddled the bayou with drainage canals that brought salty gulf currents inland, parching the oaks.

Now, abandoned well heads lurk underwater, clawing boats at low tide. The road to the village boat landing is littered with what Philippe calls "the bones of trees": silvery, gnarled trunks of oak, cypress and tupelo rising from the water like ancestral ghosts.

Left exposed to the gulf, this cluster of houses on 13-foot stilts was gutted by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. Most of the 125 residents moved away. Nine families stayed and rebuilt, including Philippe's. Then came the BP oil spill. Now the village is fighting to survive once again.

Philippe and her neighbors watch reports of the oil's spread on satellite television. She and her daughter pilot battered metal skiffs and fishing boats into nearby Bay Jimmy to "patrol" the oil, "thick as peanut butter." She monitors the water outside her doorstep, ready to report the first sign of Louisiana crude in the willows, cattails and bay bushes that have long provided remedies for tribal healers called traiteurs.

The first time she saw the oil -- "rolling into the bay, huge masses of it" -- was in early June, normally the height of shrimp season.

Riding out of the village recently on her skiff, she frowned as she recalled the sight. She cut the sputtering outboard so that her rich alto voice could be heard.

It was Day 47 of the spill, she recalled -- the new way of telling time on the Gulf of Mexico. Her older brother, Maurice Philippe, a fisherman, had called to tell her the oil was at the mouth of Bay Jimmy. He waited, but did not see any BP oil skimmers for hours. He brought a pelican back to the village drenched in oil, but there were at least a dozen others he could not save.

"By the time they came," she said, "it was already in the bay."

Philippe has since walked the bay shore and seen white egrets smeared with oil, porpoises surfacing through it.

She yanked the motor to life again, and sped past idled shrimp boats that bore names of fishermen's wives: Miss Sylvia, Miss Karen and the Screaming Woman (whose husband was served cold dinners for quite some time, Philippe says).

She traveled fast, carving a V-shaped wake in the muddy water. There was no sign of oil, but the industry's legacy was apparent. Patchy saltgrass stretched for miles along the flat marshes, one of the few plants capable of surviving widespread erosion that Philippe blames on the canals.

The bayou has always been a refuge -- for wildlife, for her people. Early settlers wrote it off as "no man's land" on maps, figuring it was worthless. They left it to the Atakapa, who have lived there for more than 300 years.

Now the bayou is dissolving.

Philippe wiped sweat and worry from her face. Both soon reappeared.

"Just a few years ago, all of these spaces were solid land. Now they're like fingers," she said, indicating a clump of grass. "Before long, that finger will be gone."

The night before, she had arrived just before dark at the Knights of Columbus Our Lady of Good Voyage bingo hall in Dulac, about three hours westward down the coast. The sky was gray and threatening rain, the hall a refuge on the two-lane road called Shrimpers Row. She greeted a few friends, then took a seat at a circle of folding tables and listened with the crowd of about 200 to an indigenous man from Ecuador's Amazon rainforest.

Luis Yanza, clean-cut in a black polo shirt and slacks, spoke quickly in Spanish. She did not understand at first, and like most in the room, had to wait for the translation from a young man beside him, an organizer with San Francisco-based Amazon Watch.

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