Angels of Mercy in the Oil Damaged Gulf

For many here at ground zero of the BP oil disaster, news has fluctuated between the absurd and the insane. On the national front, testimony from the on-going presidential oil spill commission shows a seemingly never-ending cascade of mistakes and dismal safety measures, including a rig technician who missed key signals the well was going to blow up while he was on a smoking break.

And as my colleague  Regan Nelson blogged recently, members of Congress can’t even muster enough votes to pass crucial oil pollution legislation to correct damaging deficiencies in offshore oil industry operations. To top it off, fish-eating residents of the Gulf wonder if it’s safe to eat their world-famous seafood since the FDA uses ridiculously unrealistic risk assessment numbers, as NRDC’s health expert Gina Solomon wrote this week.

Katrina battle-hardened residents are being tested as never before. BP has layed off most of its local cleanup workers and claims are now being denied in record numbers. Nearly 100,000 claims denials were issued in just 10 days recently, nearly a quarter of the total number of emergency oil spill claims that were submitted.  

Now we can count  Buras, LA, fisherman JJ Creppel as one of them. As we reported in a StoryCorps video and blog a month ago, JJ suffered a heart attack soon after he watched the oil gush out, then he sold his boat to survive and couldn’t work because the fishing grounds were closed. He and his fiance live without heat in a small, dilapidated, leaky-roofed trailer with near freezing temperatures at night.  

JJ has fought for his BP claim based on his past three years working as a commercial fisherman. For months he’s been told the check was coming in the mail or being processed. He believed it was his best hope to get back on the water and make a living again to help support his six grandchildren. It's coming, people in the claims office would always say.

Earlier this week JJ finally got his claims response in the mail: denied.


Photo by Rocky Kistner/NRDC

JJ doesn’t know who to turn to now. He can’t afford a fancy lawyer. Social workers can only help him get medications and start up a small chicken farm. All he has left is his pride. “They always say you need a good sense of humor no matter how hard it gets. If nothing else, you can tell jokes to people and make them laugh to death.”

But even here in this bleak world of the bayou, there are rays of sunshine that spotlight people's instinct to help their neighbors. Soon after BP’s oil well blew, Plaquemine’s Parish residents Vickie Manning Perrin and Joannie Hughes started up the nonprofit  Coastal Heritage Society of Louisiana (CHSL) to assist people in need. Along with community health and fisherman advocate Kindra Arnesen of Venice, they began raising money and asking for donations to provide boxes of food, gas cards and toys for needy residents. They knew that social services were not cutting it in the bayou, where people are still recovering from the knock-out blow of Katrina.

Photo by Rocky Kistner/NRDC

Little did they realize how important their skeleton grassroots organization would become. Large charities have been decimated by years of recession, and local government budgets continue to be slashed. There there are few food and service support groups for desperate residents to turn to. Through CHSL, Vickie, Joannie and Kindra have become the lifeline for many out of work families in south Plaquemines and beyond.

Walk into Vickies' comfortable wide trailer home in Jesuit Bend and you’ll see why. Boxes are piled high in the living room stuffed with canned goods, toys, footballs and anything else families may need for the holidays. Christmas bags with gifts are lined up on the floor. Donations have been trickling into CHSL from all over support their drive to buy toys and provide dinners for families this month. One woman sent a box of beautiful handmade dolls all the way from Australia.

Photos by Rocky Kistner/NRDC

“I never thought I would be doing this,” says Vickie, looking like a happy school girl wandering  through a candy store. “The donations we have received have been incredible. The best thing about it is that everything we get goes straight to people who need it. And there are a lot of them.”

Vickie, like her colleagues, works for free and has put plenty of her money and time into this effort. But the rewards are priceless. She shops at the Dollar Store and Wal-Mart, knowing every dollar saved means another toy or can of food for someone else. Yesterday, JJ Creppel came to pick up a box of food after Kindra dropped off a box of supplies for his daughter Jennifer and her six children. Jennifer worked last year part time helping fishermen, but so far she has received just $700 compensation from BP. After the oil spill, much of the fishing industry around here is on life support.

With little work to be found, boxes of food will not last long since the need is so great. This weekend, CHSL will have a major fundraiser in New Orleans at Howlin Wolf, where some of the top local musicians, dancers and comedians will perform for free. Money raised from this event will go straight to those who most in need. The all volunteer staff will make sure of that. 

“We’ve all put lots of our own money and time into this, but there’s no better feeling like giving something back to your community,” says Kindra, whose husband David is back fishing the deep coastal waters, far from polluted areas closer to shore.

Photo by Rocky Kistner/NRDC

Some residents here like Kindra, Vickie and Joannie have the means to make it through this crisis.  But many others don’t. As long as members of Congress support the status quo of self-destructive energy policies, people like JJ and his family will remain the forgotten and neglected victims of a country addicted to oil.

For those who live along BP's oil damaged coast, groups like CHSL are doing what they can to  make it right. And they could do even more for the families of the Gulf with our support this holiday season.