Exxon Valdez survivors and Gulf residents fight the same battle

NEW ORLEANS – They may be four thousand miles apart but the people in this region are joining a battle taken up more than 20 years ago by the residents of Cordova, a small Alaskan fishing village.

Sociologist J. Steven Picou, who lives 300 yards from the Gulf of Mexico in Orange Beach, Ala., is now experiencing what he once went to document – the human toll that resulted from 11 million gallons of oil ruining the eco-system in Alaska after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

Picou’s team in Cordova found lives shattered and a town ripped apart by social and psychological damage that continues today.

A review of the survey Picou published back then indicates that for years after the spill the people of Cordova endured sleepless nights, unfocused anger, misplaced emotions, unwanted thoughts, loswt friendships and soured family relationships.

Divorces and suicide resulted, according to the study.

The first signs of trouble among life long friends emerged here already as fishermen who have not yet been called to enlist in the clean-up resent those who have. The only source of income for many will be clean-up jobs and some can’t help but wonder if “the other guy” might not be selling out to BP, the perpetrator of everyone’s trouble.

Four years after the disaster in Alaska the mayor of Cordova took his own life, leaving a note blaming the suicide on his inability to do anything about the spill.

Picou said that two weeks ago he heard from a fisherman friend of his in Alaska who had seen pictures on TV of an oiled bird stricken by the BP spill. “The man couldn’t stand to watch it. He felt nauseous. He had to turn off the TV,” Picou said.

The area affected by the spill here in the Gulf is much larger and much more heavily populated than the area affected in Alaska.

Despite vastly different topography and climate, however, the fishing communities in southern Louisiana have strong similarities to Cordova, Alaska.

Like Cordova, the towns here are small, the people here have a long history of close-knit family and personal ties,they have a unique culture and their economy is heavily, if not exclusively dependent on fishing and a clean marine environment.

Picou’s study noted how each year when fiswhing season began Cordova came alive with a renewed sense of purpose.

May, for 300 years here in southern Louisiana, has been the month when everyone comes out and goes about the business of what they are all about. It was time to begin the annual task of hauling in the shrimp, the oysters and the fish.

A life-long fisherman who grew up in Chalmette, La. Explained it to Peoples World reporters.

“We live for this. When the shrimp are running you run. You go out there and when you can’t carry any more you go out again, and again and again. You don’t worry about having no sleep. If you’re working with guys who are too tired to go out again you find someone else. Its teamwork and you depend on the man, an yes, the woman you are working with. There are husband and wife couples who do this together.”

Chet Held, also an assistant business manager for Local 130 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers continued:

“You are proud of that big catch. The bigger the better. It means the food on your table and the closthes on your childrens’ backs. The size of that catch is a matter of life and death.”

Picou’s study concludes that the more a community depends upon a clean environment the more vulnerable it is to total disruption after an oil spill..

“We are all family here,” Held said. “We are all in this together. The strong bonds we have with each other have helped us pull through some really big hits. This one, though, is going to test us like we’ve never been tested before.”   

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uscgd8/ / CC BY-SA 2.0


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.