By Mira Oberman (AFP) – Apr 13, 2011
GRAND ISLE, Louisiana — A year after the worst maritime oil spill in history sullied the US Gulf Coast, men armed with shovels and a big yellow excavator are still digging up the sandy beach of Grand Isle, Louisiana in search of sticky tar balls.
"We'd like to tell people it's over, but the oil will still wash up every time it storms," said Jay LaFont, Grand Isle's deputy mayor.
People here are used to dealing with disasters. They've had to rebuild from four major hurricanes -- Katrina, Rita, Ike and Gustav -- in the past five years alone.
Those disasters had a clear start and end.
BP's runaway well -- which blew on April 20 and spewed 206 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico before it was finally capped 76 days later -- continues to threaten their way of life.
Because nobody knows what the long-term impacts will be.
While favorable currents and a massive response kept the bulk of the oil from reaching shore, plenty got trapped in the tidal zone and keeps washing up in sandy clumps.
Grand Isle was among the hardest hit areas, but crews are still actively cleaning 235 miles (380 kilometers) of coastline and plan to return to around 300 more miles (480 kilometers) once tourism and nesting season is over.
The occasional tar ball shouldn't be enough to keep the tourists away, but people in Gulf Coast beach towns like this one are worried that last year's bad headlines will.
Even more frightening is what will happen to the fish, shrimp and crabs swimming through the oil and chemical dispersants still floating in Gulf waters and clogging the nearby marshes which act as nurseries.
"People, they're down," LaFont said over coffee one recent morning.
"They want it to be over with, they want to get back to a normal life and they want to know everything's going to be okay, but you can't. It's not over because of the dispersant out there."
The stress of the spill forced Sarah Rigaud, 76, to start taking anti-anxiety medication after business at the restaurant she's run for 38 years collapsed in the wake of the spill.
At first she thought she'd make money serving the cleanup crews, but after BP brought in outside catering she had to start cutting back and dipping into her savings.
So far BP's promising to make people "whole" hasn't done much to help Rigaud cover a mounting stacks of bills.
She got two emergency payments of $5,000 and, like nearly 90,000 other people, is still waiting for her claim to be processed.
"They keep promising and promising and we haven't gotten anything yet. We keep going to all sorts of meetings -- they just keep putting us off and telling us we're in their system."
Rigaud can't imagine closing Sarah's Restaurant and will do just about anything to hang onto it.
"My husband is buried here," she said as she prepared for another slow lunch service.
"I don't want to just sit at home and think about what I used to have. I'd rather stay busy. It's easier on my nerves."
While there is plenty of anger focused on BP's response to the spill and the cumbersome claims process, there was little support in the region for the temporary moratorium imposed on deepwater drilling.
The moratorium was lifted in October after regulators drafted new safety rules, but the first deepwater drilling permit wasn't issued until February 28 and activity is only now starting to ramp back up.
Harris Cheramie said he gets about 25 calls a day from people looking for work on one of the tugboats he runs out of nearby Leeville, which is just up the road from the offshore industry's main launching point of Port Fourchon.
Like many here, Cheramie says the moratorium hurt Louisiana more than the oil spill and blames the Obama administration for holding the oil and gas industry to a different standard.
"I can't understand why they let the airplanes fly," Cheramie said over salad at Sarah's Restaurant.
"There are more people killed in airplanes than died offshore, but one accident in 50 years and they kill the oilfield."
Gwen Hebert, 58, has been vacationing in her grandfather's Grand Isle camp house her whole life. She's not bothered by the cleanup trucks on the beach or the oil platforms which dot the horizon.
"I think BP really screwed up, but I think they're trying to redeem themselves," Herbert said as she sunned herself on the otherwise empty beach.
"As a liberal teenager I hated when the oil rigs went up, but we all have to have oil. That's what this area is about. You can't take it away."
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