Reporting from Belle Chasse, La. — — It was a bad time to hold a seafood festival, Day 39 of the United States' worst oil spill.
But this is a place that worships seafood, and on Saturday, the Plaquemines Parish Seafood Festival went on as scheduled. People danced and ate and tried to divert their minds from the impending ecological disaster at their shores. They came to dig into fried catfish, savor broiled oysters and munch shrimp on a stick.
By midday, about 1,000 people had already gathered at a grassy field at the parish's fairgrounds, about 30 minutes outside New Orleans.
"It's a great turnout," said Keith Hinkley, a Plaquemines Parish councilman. The 6-year-old festival was originally created to support and celebrate the fishing industry, now largely idled. This year, a portion of the proceeds will go toward needy fishermen.
"We cannot turn our backs on the local fishermen," Hinkley said.
As children chose between riding the Ferris wheel or shooting down the fun slide, couples swayed back and forth to live music, smiles on their faces. Gail Wardlow, 66, bounced along to pop-country music in a lawn chair positioned underneath a tent. The parish is like her family, she said.
"Everybody tries to support each other," she said. "People are tough here."
Wardlow's seafood of choice was soft-shell crab, with pasta and cream sauce.
"It's better than most five-star restaurants in New Orleans," she said.
Nicol Breaux , 41, wore a yellow shirt that read "Dredge Baby Dredge" on the front, with a blackened pelican and cracked eggs pictured on the back. She's part of a concerned-citizens group with the same name.
But for the afternoon, Breaux said she was out to have fun and enjoy some seafood. "It could be the last time we eat it," she said. Moments later, she grabbed her soft-shell-crab po' boy — a Louisiana staple — and bit down.
Breaux had attended the festival in the past, but Theresa Holland was a newcomer. If the seafood offerings had been limited — and they weren't — Holland would have come anyway.
"They could have had hot dogs and I would have still come in support of this parish," said Holland, 53, a software support representative from St. Tammany Parish. "It's because of the gulf spill that I'm here."
Holland was among those who cheered and whistled after Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser spoke on stage. The purpose of the festival, he said, was quite simple: "It's just what we needed … a little break."