Margaret Curole and her family have deep roots in Louisiana’s bayous and Cajun culture. Curole was born 48 years ago in a Louisiana fishing town called Galliano and still lives in the same house. Her life is intimately tied up with both fishing and oil, the two industries that form the foundation of the economy in the Louisiana Gulf region.

Curole’s father is an oilman. In the 1950s, even before his daughter was born, he worked in Saudi Arabia for Gulf Oil. With her husband, Curole shrimped commercially for almost 20 years. Her husband fished all his life until the local fishing industry suffered a downturn in 2000-2001. He now delivers and positions floating oil rigs with his tugboat. Curole serves on the executive board of the Commercial Fishermen of America, and she is also the North American coordinator of the World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fish Workers, an NGO that works with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization to protect the rights of fishing communities around the world.

Curole and I had a far-ranging conversation that moved both of us deeply.

We began, of course, with the topic foremost in everybody’s mind: the Gulf oil catastrophe. It’s all about loss: the ecological disaster is killing not only birds, fish and coastal marshes, it is robbing the region of its livelihood. It spells the end of a way of life.

“I told my husband this morning I’ve got to quit watching the news, because if I don’t, I’m going to make myself ill,” Curole began. “But it’s like a train wreck. You can’t look away.” She had just watched BP’s COO Doug Suttles admitting that all their improvisations haven’t yet stopped—or even slowed—the flow. “That’s what I do know,” he says on camera. “What I don’t know is if it ultimately will or not.”

Curole’s oilman father and her friends who work in the oil fields are skeptical that even the relief well will work as planned. “There’s no friggin’ way that relief well is going to be ready by the end of August,” Curole said, adding, “It’s all just smoke and mirrors.”

As of May 31, she said, just about all the prime estuaries—where the best fishing is done—were closed.

One of Curole’s closest friends is Dean Blanchard, the largest shrimp buyer in the Gulf. Curole described him as a tough man, “the hardest-working man I know.” Yet, said Curole, “he and his wife are packing their bags to leave.” Interviewed on Fox Business last week, Blanchard said that before the spill, his company stood to do $40 million in business this year.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J49rhKf2slI]

Now, he said, he’s losing the equivalent of $100,000 in a day. “He probably has upwards of 1,000 fishermen that sell to him,” said Curole. “Since Katrina, since everything was so devastated, he’s the only shrimp buyer who actually came back in our area. So if he shuts down—” Curole didn’t finish her sentence. “It’s a moot point,” she realized, “because there’s no shrimp.”

At the time of his Fox Business interview, Blanchard had just let 65 employees go. According to Curole, he’s is usually bubbly and upbeat; now, she said, he’s “just flat. He’s so resigned to the fact that our way of life is gone. Our way of life is gone. It’s just heart-breaking.”

There are other, more immediate problems.

“BP has set up temporary relief centers, but there are major disparities in the way people are treated and in the way claims are being processed,” Curole said. She explained that some offices require lots of paperwork and documentation. One day this week, while helping people with their claims, she said she saw them “shut the door in about 30 people’s faces.” Yet in other locations, she said, “people are sailing through the process.” BP has set up a help hotline, she said, “but they can’t help you.”

Curole has friends “who are working on the cleanup because they were fishermen and they have no other choice— whatcha gonna do? They had to take that job that was offered to them by BP.” But the cleanup carries its own health risks. “From the minute you get out there, you start feeling queasy and you have a headache,” Curole said, and the air smells like newly laid asphalt. “Five people I know got airlifted out and brought to the hospital. The guy from BP says they have no clue what’s causing it. The fishermen are asking for respirators [high-tech filtering masks] until they figure out what is causing them to be sick—one of them stayed in the hospital for two days.”

Curole said that the men were violently ill: besides headaches, they were vomiting and their blood pressures spiked. Yet according to her, BP is refusing to distribute the masks they ask for. She added that the EPA is testing the air, but they’re not registering any major concentrations of airborne pollutants. “If and when the EPA determines something is wrong, then [BP says] they’ll be glad to give [the cleanup crews] respirators.” But the logic of that escapes her. “If the guys are sick, why don’t they go ahead and give them a damn respirator and then figure out what’s wrong?

“There’s so many variables in this thing, there’s so many things that are unknown, there’s so many things that have never been tested before—couldn’t it be that there’s some kind of pathogen that they don’t know about?”

Those who want to participate in the cleanup must first take a class. Many locals, said Curole, “wonder why they haven’t been called, only to find out that their names are not on list, even though they have taken the class.” Some boats are on standby, for which they aren’t paid. When called, she said, they have only one hour to mobilize before someone else is called.

On CNN, Curole heard the former president of Shell Oil asking why there aren’t “tankers out there suctioning that stuff up. They have huge tankers,” said Curole. “Why aren’t they using them?”

I said I had heard that wasn’t practical.

“I’m sorry,” Curole objected, “but my husband makes his living out there in that water. He says where the Deepwater Horizon was positioned, it was on the edge of a trench, an abyss—there’s no reason why those big ships can’t get in there.”

On Friday, May 28, President Obama visited the Louisiana beach where the oil is coming ashore. “There was a big scandal,” Curole said. “People were outraged.”

Why? “There’s been virtually nobody cleaning up in some areas,” Curole said. Sometimes there are “40 boats sitting on anchor waiting and doing nothing. Then the president shows up and there’s two school buses of guys that nobody knows who they are. They’re not even fishermen, they’re not from the area. They’re all in pretty, brand new t-shirts and jumpsuits, and they’re cleaning the beach. Then the president arrives, and then as soon as the president left, boom! So did the workers.”

The official word was that those workers had stopped work because they’d been out in the hot sun all day. Curole wasn’t buying that. “Bullshit. So some of our elected officials, some of the Jefferson Parish councilmen, actually called out BP and said, ‘Did you put those people for a photo op?’ Now BP’s backpedalling and saying, ‘Oh, we were going to ramp up the effort anyway. It just so happened that we brought all these crews in on the day the president came.’” None of them, Curole reiterated, were locals. “We have fishermen out of work. Why are you bringing in guys that aren’t even from the area?”

Only approved media and state officials had access to the president. “None of the people that were affected, like the business leaders and fishermen—none of them were allowed to meet with him.” I had noticed Charlie Crist, the governor of Florida, standing prominently behind the president, and asked Curole if she knew why he was there. Suddenly, years’ worth of regional anger and resentment flared.

“Louisiana has always  been known as the little bastard stepchild in the South,” Curole declared. “That’s always how we’ve been treated. We don’t have pretty, white-sugar-sand beaches. What we have is oil. Our theory is that now they’ve figured out that that oil is fixing to go to Florida, and when those pretty, photo-op beaches are covered with oil–Oh my God! There’s going to be a hell to pay.””

Tomorrow: Ecological impact—local and global—and what the catastrophe means for the future.

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  • Beverly Schwartz June 3, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Why can’t Diane Vacca’s article get to the President? Every time there’s a story like this, I think, why can’t the President read this? Does Michelle Obama know about Women’s Voices for Change? She should.

    Reply