FEATURE | The Oiliest Catch by Dan Ilic
Grand Isle is a small stretch of island where the oil and media first made landfall. As the slick slinks its way further east, both have almost been cleared out.
Ever since the Deep Horizon Mega Spillathon, I’ve had in the back of mind to take a sticky beak at what was happening down there besides I was already in the right hemisphere area (by area, I mean hemisphere). So I spent four days darting across Louisiana’s Gulf Coast.
Grand Isle is a tiny town about a two and half hour drive from New Orleans. I took my rental car and a GPS and headed south through highways that cut through swamps and marshes, then smaller roads that jump from island to island. At one point the highway just stopped (died or some other funny metaphoric term that means gave up the ghost). My GPS hadn’t taken into account that many kilometres of the highway were now underwater. I took the brand new tollway instead, a road so new that my GPS machine freaked out and began yelling at me “Re-calculating! I don’t know how you’re doing this, are you flying or are you Swimming? Get back to the road, you maverick.”
The town consists of houses raised on stilts and the odd store. Aside from the ExxonMobil gas refinery, the biggest building here is the half finished Catholic Church come mega mall. Car parked, camera in hand, I excitedly walked up the beach embankment to get my first look at the action. My heart was racing. It was like a scene from an X-Files movie. SUVs, 4WDs zipping back and forth. Hundreds of workers in gumboots, and fluro vests walking around. The moment I started snapping pictures, two helicopters buzzed over my head. In a panic I thought “Uh Oh, they’re on to me…I should get back to the car, and get out of town and where the hell is Agent Scully?” As I zipped away from the beach and the secret oil police death choppers that were after me, my self induced adrenaline pumping nightmare crashed into reality as I drove past the ExxonMobil heliport.
There’s a feeling journalists get when they’re the scene of a big global story, adrenaline mixed with lust – I like to call it News Porn. News Porn works just like regular porn, once you’ve got your rocks off, it’s just a picture of a naked person, or in my case a beach covered in cars, booms, and machinery. Besides, by this stage I had a greater need to find a bar with a TV to watch the World Cup final. Artie’s Bar was with two punters gathered around the TV watching the football. It sounds like a good joke. A Brit, A Peruvian and an Australian walk into a bar. The Australian says “what are you two doing here?” The Peruvian replies “We’re demonstrating oil skimming technology.” Hilarity ensues.
When I asked Vicky, our barmaid, why there weren’t more people here watching the game, she looked at me blankly and said “Oh there’s plenty of people, they’re just not here, they’re working.” A Grand Isle local of 13 years, Vicky told me that Artie’s Bar at this time of year is usually super busy with holiday makers and families, but because of the spill no one is here. “On the weekends in summer our back deck is slammed, you can’t see your feet, if you came here with a friend and your friend went to the bar, you’d never see them again. It’s that busy.” This day, however the deck that overlooks the gulf was a quite dreary, like a scary level of a computer. Two women sit atop a picnic table sipping beer and gazing out to the closed beach and oil rigs dotting the horizon.
According to Vicky, the clean up is as much of a headache as the oil spill. “The oil spill workers are thugs, they’ve scared off all the local customers. They come in here with guns and knives. We’ve had fights here every night. The problem is that many of the workers are convicts. I used to leave my house unlocked and walk down here in my pyjamas if I had to. I don’t feel safe no more I drive.” Things have gotten so bad that after 5pm Artie’s Bar has security guards on their doors on the weekends and a hand-written sign that explicitly states: “Pants up or your out” [sic]“. If liberally applied incorrected word use don’t scare off thugs perhaps the 9pm curfew put in place by clean-up managers will.
Mornings and evenings see bus loads of workers shipped to makeshift kitchens all over the Isle – some go to the flotels, barges with standby housing filled with clean up workers. There is one such standby kitchen weirdly placed smack bang in the middle of Grand Isle State Park – a place with camping grounds, bird nesting zones and nature boardwalks. This is where I met Lyndal and Joe, a couple who have been camping at the same spot each summer for over 50 years. (‘Camping’ is a relative term for these folks: their campsite consists of a large RV complete with satellite TV, a pick up truck and his and hers golf buggies)
“If I hear a BP person say that they’re going to make it right once more, I am going to hurt him,” says Lyndal. “First we’ve gotta fight the oil, now we’ve gotta fight the stupid clean up – they make more mess than they take away.” The couple in their late sixties, kind of remind me of my parents, if my parents only watched Fox news and drove an RV to the same beach in Louisiana every year, and dressed like characters from The Big Lebowski. According to Lyndal and Al, the spill workers “snuck” into the parks restrooms and destroyed cubicles and urinated all over the walls and floor. “So we complained. Now they’ve shipped in their port-o-pottys, and they aren’t allowed to use the park restrooms, but I see them still sneaking in there. They think they I don’t see them, but I can.” She and her husband have also been concerned about the amount of trash that’s being left behind after the workers are all shipped in and out of the park for meals. They’ve made it their duty to zip round on their dual golf buggies with garbage bags and collect all of the stray styrofoam cups, plates, plastic cutlery, cans, bottles, and toilet tissue that makes its way from the mess tent area to the marshes and nesting areas of birds and wildlife. “I’m and Animal lover,” explains Lyndal dressed in a pink t-shirt with a picture of a two adorable puppies… across her puppies: “You hurt the animals, I’ll hurt you.” I, for one, believer her. If you met someone who went on vacation with enough automobiles to equip New Zealand’s Army, you would too.
The next day I hopped back in my tiny two stroke Hyundai and hiked six hours back over the other side of NOLA. You know you’re in Venice, Louisiana, when the four lane highway turns into a two track that, depending on the tides is occasionally submerged under a half a foot of seawater, like today.
Now, it’s not that I have an aversion to maps or asking for directions, it’s just that I like going on an adventure, and seeing where the road takes me. So that’s why, after a kilometres of submerged roadway, I failed to take the turn off to the Venice marina, and drove deeper into the bayou. It was when I started catching crawfish in my glove box that I realised that my Hyundai hire car was probably not for this journey. I then made the decision to do did a three point turn to take that turn off to the marina after an alligator asks me if I need directions. I can feel my car struggling with the water, so much so I freak out as it starts to drift sideways off the road. To make matters worse I can even feel the birds sitting in the middle of the road judging me. “Who brings their Hyundai down here?” One bird says. “Looks like rental” Said another “Damn Tourists
I eventually dripped my way into the tiny Venice Marina, the only group of building for miles in the middle of the bayou. One side of the marina had a bar with fishermen and a couple of TV journalists just hanging out waiting to do live crossed to affiliate stations around the country. On the far side, it was eerily quiet. Boats were in, cars were parked, but there was none of the commotion associated with a fishing hub. The marinas are usually half empty. When the boats come in they unload their catch, swap crews and head out again. Today the all boats were in. Many of the fisherman were hanging inside their vessels watching TV.
Walking around that far side of the marina, I bump into Jim, an Asian fisherman. I naively ask him if he’s Chinese, Jim laughed at me, and explained in broken english “You’re kiddin, Chinese don’t work on the boat. The Chinese work on the petroleum.” Jim made his way out to the US from Vietnam over 20 years ago. He now works on his brother, Qui’s fishing trawler, The Captain Champ. I caught him as he and his brother were preparing crabs for dinner. “I’m doing okay. BP is promising fishermen like me about $2500 a month, and some captains about $5000 which more than I actually earn being a fisherman.” I ask him about the crabs he’s preparing. “Oh yeah, they’re safe, they’re mud crab from the river, oil hasn’t reached this far up yet. Besides we’re not allowed to go fishing in the gulf even if we wanted.” Jim’s broken English was quite hard to understand but I could tell he had a great sense of humour. “BP are offering us packaged meals too, but it look like jail food, I’ve been to jail, and that’s what it look like.” He said laughing “How long you here from Australia?”
“Five months,” I said.
“Oh five months without pussy! I’m on the boat ten days and I miss pussy man, I don’t want money, I want pussy” he and his brother joked rocking back and forth. He laughed. I laughed. I didn’t bother telling him I’d had a pretty dry couple of years…despite being on TV.
As Jim was shattering my ego, a trawler puttered its way in from the river. I headed over to say g’day. James George, a Shrimp Boat captain with a thick Cajun accent was just returning from the gulf after being out on the water for 70 days. James and his crew are one of the clean-up teams that’s being seconded by BP to help soak up the spill. “We mop it up with booms put it trash bags, and head on over to the supply ship. I’ll take you if you like, you can get good money.” Just then Steve, a handsome grandfatherly figure yelled our way as he walked towards us from the car park “I DON’T WANT TO SEE YA HERE, I WANT TO SEE YA HAULIN OIL” Steve’s a retired shrimp boat captain that owns these boats. He’s here to pick up his boys and take them home. “I tell ya Steve,” said James, “It’s sure gonna make me lazy after this. I won’t wanna go back to work, I’ll just wanna haul oil.”
Steve clocks me and laughs. “They’re on a honeymoon these boys.”
“It’s just too easy to keep going back and the fuel’s so cheap,” says James, quick as a flash
Steve replies, “Damn, I should have brought me a jug.”
It’s a cliché to say that this part of the US is special. So I won’t say that. I’ll just say that the rest of the US is so ordinary compared to this place. Despite all the tough times that these people have gone through, they carry themselves with humor and warmth. I felt that it was an absolute privilege to drive my economy sized car through a half a foot of water for a few miles to come and meet them. And more importantly, after four days of NOLA and her surrounds I got my fix of News Porn. Now I’m on the look out for another disaster. I hear there’s a synagogue near Mel Gibson’s house… perhaps me and my cheap hire car should camp out there.
About Dan: Dan Ilic is an Australian comedian, writer, performer, actor, broadcaster, and filmmaker. He is best known for his work on the sketch comedy TV show The Ronnie Johns Half Hour, and writing and performing in Beaconsfield: The Musical. Dan is also a reporter/presenter on the ABC show Hungry Beast.
Visit: www.DanIlic.com or on Twitter
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