Amid vast change wrought by spill, Gulf coast residents adapt, reflect, savor special moments

By Pauline Arrillaga, AP
Monday, June 28, 2010

Gulf lament: Everything’s different now

MARRERO, La. — In a pretty brick house on a cul-de-sac with a basketball hoop and flowering crape myrtles, a little boy with big blue eyes and hair the color of sand is trying to understand why Daddy is gone so much these days.

Daddy missed his graduation from pre-kindergarten last month, where he got a special award for spelling his colors right. He missed his first swimming lesson of the summer, too. Since the oil began gushing into the blue Gulf waters, Daddy even misses bedtime every now and then.

And so this particular June morning is a precious gift for 3-year-old Bryce Hebert. Daddy’s home for a couple of hours, eating biscuits, cutting the grass and playing with him and sister Gracey. Things almost seem normal again, as the boy sifts through building blocks on the family room floor. Then his father gets up from the couch and kisses Gracey on the cheek.

“All right,” he says. “I’ve gotta go.”

Bryce looks up with those innocent eyes and asks, ever so sweetly, “Go where?”

“Work” didn’t used to mean what it means for Kris Hebert now: Seven days a week of being a “boat chauffeur,” shuttling reporters, politicians and government workers to and from oil mop-up sites — a job that forces him to cruise daily past the marshes stained with crude where he once made a paycheck doing what he loved.

Before the catastrophe, Hebert was living his dream. A boat captain and fishing guide, he spent his mornings taking anglers around the marshes of Barataria Bay, hunting all his honey holes for redfish and speckled trout. He was up and out of the house before dawn, but he was home by midafternoon to play with Bryce, eat dinner with his wife, Brandy, and see his son and 7-month-old daughter to bed. Off-days meant taking Bryce out fishing, the way his father and grandpa once took him.

His days were filled with hard work but equally hard play, that “way of life” so many on the Gulf Coast speak of fervently.

Now that “way” is a study in sacrifice and survival. Long days making money while you can. Treasured moments missed: Gracey rolling over for the first time and saying “Da Da,” dinner with Brandy on their anniversary. It is living day-to-day with the uncertainty of not knowing what next week, next month or even, heaven forbid, next year will bring.

It is, quite simply, doing what you have to do to go on.

And so Hebert kisses his children goodbye each morning, slides his sunglasses into place, climbs into his pickup wearing a shirt that says “Capt. Kris,” and heads to Lafitte, a fishing village that has been his home away from home for years, where the oil has not only commandeered the waterways but an entire community and the existence of those who live and work there.

And he understands when his boy asks “Where” or “Why,” and sits outside some afternoons to wait for him to come home, even though he’ll be late.

After all, how can a child possibly grasp what even grown-ups are struggling to accept?

Everything is different now.

You see it all along the coast, this balancing act between mourning and trying to move on. There are some depressingly conspicuous signs that go beyond the tarballs rolling up on white sand. In Grand Isle, once an oceanfront haven for families, one homeowner erected a cemetery in his front yard with dozens of white crosses thrust into the grass and words scribbled in black to represent all that’s been lost: “Fishing.” ”Brown Pelican.” ”Shrimp.” But also: “Beach Sunsets.” ”Sand Between My Toes.” ”Our Soul.”

The beach there is cordoned off with an orange mesh gate to keep visitors out of the water, and beyond that lies a giant snake of ugly orange boom. There’s still a small patch of sand open, but only a few sunbathers are willing to endure the new view. The Gulf Stream Marina has become a staging ground for news conferences. A National Guard truck is parked at the post office. And Linda Marie, a massage therapist who’s lived here a decade, wakes up every day wondering: Now what?

“The future is all ‘ifs,’” she says. “If a hurricane will come. If oil comes up onto our shores.” The present, she says, is “just sadness and death all around.”

The Gulf Coast people are resilient, that’s true. They’ve endured much more than most and have had to learn how to pick up the pieces and start again and then again. It wasn’t just Katrina, but then Hurricane Rita right on its heels and, three years later, the back-to-back blows of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike., a community website for the town of Lafitte, shows satellite images of all four storms and pictures of the battered community: The Piggy Wiggly under water. The “Hair by Jeanine” sign nearly drowned. Airboats ferrying residents to safety. “If this didn’t scare you away,” the site reads, “then Lafitte is in your heart, and you’re not going anywhere.”

But the spill is an altogether different kind of storm.

“It’s like dealing with a hurricane because it’s a constantly evolving situation,” says Raymond Griffin, who owns the charming dock and fishing lodge that sit around the corner and across the swing bridge from the Lafitte Town Hall, now converted into a BP claims center. “But a hurricane’s over within 24 to 48 hours and then it’s cleaned up and you get your life back together. This is: We don’t know, we don’t know.”

Griffin is a man of 55 who smiles a lot beneath a thick mustache, no matter what life throws at him. He first came to Lafitte, 30 miles due south of New Orleans, 12 years ago when he worked for a company writing training manuals. He went fishing, fell in love with the water, quit his six-figure job and started a fishing camp. At the time, his wife laughed at the idea.

His first year he hired one local guy as a guide, and they did 250 trips together, taking tourists and city types in and out of the marshy bays to fish.

This year, before the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig and the spill that keeps on spilling and the government closing his waters to fishing, Griffin and his seven guides did 250 trips in the month of May alone. He had 600 more bookings for June, July and August, but has already sent out more than $15,000 in refunds.

He uses the past tense now when talking about the business that was his passion. “This used to be our fishing lodge.” ”Our little place used to do up to 1,000 trips a year.”

“Gone,” he sighs. “It’s all gone.”

What’s not gone is his ability to adapt. Instead of anglers, Griffin is housing oil recovery workers at the lodge. He helped some of his guides — including Kris Hebert — get jobs as boat captains for a disaster contractor hired by BP to coordinate recovery. Instead of grilling burgers or frying fish in the afternoon for his guests, he runs two boats filled with meals out to mop-up sites scattered across the water. He’s up at 4 a.m. to oversee the breakfast run, then sneaks in a nap before he’s up again to sometimes act as a “boat chauffeur” himself.

The adjustment hasn’t been so easy for his wife, Belinda, who after her initial skepticism came to adore their little enterprise. She greeted the customers with a cheery smile and listened to all their fish tales at night on the dock. Nowadays, she mostly stays in the apartment above the lodge. One afternoon Griffin found her on the bed, weeping, and she confided her concern over the long hours he’s working — “juggling a china plate, a sword and a power saw,” she said. He did his best to reassure her that he, and they, would be OK.

“Like anything else, when you start something new it’s hard,” he says one night, sitting on his dock as the sun dips over the water. “In 2½ weeks time, I’ve had to learn how to be a boat broker, a food service delivery manager, a soft shoulder to cry on and deal with my own personal grief about losing my business, my way of life. But I choose to keep smiling and keep going.

“The one thing I do know: This isn’t forever. There’ll be an end to this, whether it’s a year or two years or three years. My idea is if I just keep working hard and I ignore what’s really happening, then I’ll get through it.”

Hebert went to work for Griffin (Mr. Raymond, he calls him) six years ago after toiling as an auto mechanic. He’d fished all his life, got his first boat when he was just 8 years old, and turning his hobby into his profession was a dream come true.

Inside Griffin’s deserted dining room, beneath walls decorated with fishing rods and photographs of the damage Ike and Katrina wrought, Hebert pulls out a small photo album and flips through pages filled with better times, pictures of him and his many clients showing off their catches with proud grins.

“Before on a weekend, you’d have 300 boats fishing out there. Now you don’t see nothing but work boats. I miss it. Trawlers shrimping. Crabbers,” he says. “There’s nothing like coming back on the dock and being with all the guys and telling stories and drinking beer. Money don’t describe that.”

That’s what so many of the outsiders flooding here now don’t seem to understand, be they BP people or suits from Washington, D.C. The way of life has never really been about the money. Hebert’s making enough to get by as a “BP worker.” Lots of people are — some more than they would have shrimping or crabbing. Says one shrimper who now drives a food boat for Griffin: “This is my first real job, pretty much.”

David Volion owns Voleo’s Seafood Restaurant down the road from Griffin’s place. The same contractor paying Griffin and Hebert is paying him and some of the other eateries to make meals a week at a time for all the workers on the water now (the joke is they’ve expanded Lafitte’s population of about 1,800 by at least 500 more).

Volion says if he plays his cards right he could make more money in the next two years than in the first 45 of his life. But then what happens when the workers pack up, leaving behind waterways no longer producing the shrimp, crabs and fish that put Lafitte on the map?

“You’ll have seafood, but not local. And who’s gonna want to come to a sterile town where everything’s not local? That niche is gone,” he says. “What do you do? Become a burger joint? A pizza joint? A steakhouse?”

Dorothy Wiseman coordinates activities at the Lafitte Senior Center, which itself has been turned into a command post. A few weeks back, she and her seniors relocated to the brand-new multipurpose center a block over, and they play bingo in the room that was supposed to be a fisheries museum. That project is suspended for now.

Wiseman is 70 but has lived in Lafitte since she was a girl. She thinks about the life she and her friends have always known, and the one they endure now, and she grieves the small things that are gone. Sons and husbands bringing home so much shrimp, crab and fish that some elders never had to buy seafood at a grocery store. Holidays spent with family in peace, where this past Father’s Day all the talk was about that still-spewing oil and, “What should be done. What can be done. What hasn’t been done.”

With most of the fishermen out laying boom, or picking it up once the oil has soaked through, Wiseman says: “Our men are doing something that’s dangerous.”

“The biggest thing is worry. We’re worried about our homes. We’re worried about the next storm coming in that could bring all this oil into our area. We’re worried about being forced, possibly, to have to move permanently,” she says. “The biggest thing that’s happening to all of us is that we’re very, very worried.”

She’s made it her mission to maintain as much of a normal routine as she can for the seniors, so at least some folks can escape the bad news for a while. Line dancing is still every Wednesday afternoon. Duck carving follows. And, until further notice, the bingo games start at 10:30 a.m. Fridays — inside the museum that might not be finished any time soon.

At home in Marrero, Brandy Hebert thinks of contingencies just in case her husband’s job suddenly ends, fishing doesn’t come back and the money starts to run out.

She’s 25 and wonders about things like: Do they really need their home telephone?

She explains to Bryce about the oil, and the boy knows that Daddy has, as he calls it, “a new work.” She videotapes special occasions such as Bryce’s graduation, and she calls her husband when something amazing happens, like Gracey saying “Da Da.” They’ve put off their daughter’s christening.

Says Brandy: “You just have to learn: one day at a time.”

Kris Hebert still would rather be on the water than doing anything else, but the water isn’t the haven it once was for him. Each day is another expedition to an environmental wasteland. He drives past coils of boom corralling marshland blotched brown. He takes officials to passes blocked by gigantic barges to stop the creeping oil. Wilkinson Canal has become a floating warehouse, with barges parked along the shoreline stacked with plastic bags full of boom.

And yet there are glimpses, too, of what was: Waterside stores peddling live cocahoes, a favorite bait for redfish. Locals sitting on porch swings, waving as the boats go by. Closer to Lafitte, grasslands remain untouched by the crude. For now, it’s all a bit of a tease and a daily reminder of what’s gone, as are some of the questions Hebert faces from the many guests on his boat. A group of reporters one day. Out-of-state mayors the next. Department of Homeland Security and so on.

“How long have you been in the fishing business?” a Florida mayor asks one recent trip.

“All my life,” Hebert replies, as he always does.

“How old are you?” the mayor asks, and Capt. Kris tells him: 28.

He uses the idle chitchat as an opportunity to encourage out-of-towners to not let anyone forget about what’s happening down here, or about the help the Gulf Coast will need for some time. “We can’t let it get out of the people’s minds.”

It angers him, all that’s happened. But he tries to make the best of it. He had fun that day he drove the mayors around, despite the strange scenes flying by, devastation and paradise side by side. On the way back to Lafitte, he turned the radio on, slid the volume up and started dancing in place and singing along, not noticing how poignant the song lyrics were: “These are the moments I thank God that I’m alive.”

It was a pretty good day. And the following afternoon, Hebert got off earlier than usual and was home at 6, in time to run A-B-C flashcards with Bryce, read him a book and play outside. Later that night, when BP and the Coast Guard were holding an open house in the Lafitte high school gym, Hebert was home, saying goodnight to his kids.

What do you do when you lose everything you know and love? You march on, sure. You find distractions. You adapt. Your way of life becomes something a little different. A little worse? Maybe.

But when those moments of happiness do come, you relish them. They mean more now.

Pauline Arrillaga is a national writer for The Associated Press, based in Phoenix. She can be reached at features(at)

will not be displayed