Reporting from Pascagoula, Miss. — The timing could not have been worse for this community of boaters. For months they had been planning a spirited revival of a tradition called the Blessing of the Fleet to unify a city hit hard by Hurricane Katrina.
Boaters, fishermen, seafood merchants and residents would honor seafarers who have died and offer prayers for the fleet to bring home a robust catch.
But amid the crawfish and T-shirt tables, folks voiced an undercurrent of worry: What now? The ominous gulf oil slick loomed offshore. Oil marred about 50 miles of neighboring Louisiana bayous and beaches.
The water is more than an ecological and economic resource along the Gulf Coast; it defines culture.
Jaunting to barrier islands is a weekend ritual. Summers are packed with fishing rodeos and seafood festivals. In Pascagoula, population 23,000, many folks buy Christmas trees at Bozo's Seafood Market.
"When you're born here, the water is in your blood," said Anna Cole, 31, whose husband was among the fleet blessing's organizers.
Cole, who was selling fleet-blessing T-shirts, had made a pact with her husband to avoid discussing the oil slick at home. But reminders were everywhere.
She works as a Social Security claims representative and recently helped a dejected commercial fisherman file for retirement. When she glanced at seafood restaurant menus, she wondered which items would be crossed off and when.
"Now more than ever we need a blessing for our shrimp boats," she said.
Her friend, Jodi McKenzie, 30, teaches sixth-graders. One boy was recently late for class; his mom was organizing a cleanup crew. The kids have been asking whether the fish in the cafeteria is contaminated.
"It's just in your face," she said, sighing.
Father Tony Arguelles, the pastor of nearby Our Lady of Victories, offered a gentler view.
"We've always lived with the water. So we have to live with its perils," he said.
Arguelles strolled down a long wooden pier to sprinkle about 40 boats with holy water as they drifted by.
Toward the end, a giant shrimp boat named Harbor Light glided by with a banner fluttering on its side:
"GOD save our GULF."