Oil spill stress starts to weigh on gulf residents

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Ordinarily this time of year, Adam Trahan would be out on the Gulf of Mexico on a shrimp boat, trawling from South Pass to the Chandeleur Islands. Instead, last week he was trawling between the bar at Cisco’s Hideaway on Oak Lane and Artie’s out on the highway, fishing for Bud Light.

“I look out there and I see my life ruined,” Trahan, 53, said in his long Cajun drawl from the ocean-side deck at Artie’s. “There ain’t no shrimpin’, there ain’t no crabbin’, there ain’t no oysterin’. Well, the only thing I know is shrimpin’. That’s all I know. Now you tell me: Where do I go from here? It’s heartbreakin’, baby.”

A few blocks away, Dean Blanchard, owner of a seafood company that ships 15 million pounds a year of gulf shrimp and fish, gets up in the morning, walks to his empty warehouse, trudges back again, sits down in front of the TV and stares at CNN’s oil spill coverage. Then he heads back to the warehouse.

“I’m just walking around in a circle, more or less,” he said. “I don’t know what to do. I never been this confused in my life.”

While listless, oil-soaked pelicans may be the most memorable images of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the fishermen and business owners marooned along the Gulf Coast already are proving just as big a challenge for the mental health workers dispatched from Louisiana to Florida to help vaccinate against the fast-growing epidemic of despair.

The symptoms are well-documented: The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 touched off a wave of suicides, domestic violence, bankruptcies and alcoholism in Alaska that created an entire literature on the unique and confounding psychology of technological disaster.

J. Steven Picou of the University of South Alabama, the author of much of the groundbreaking research on oil spill stress in Cordova, Alaska, now finds himself living 400 yards from the oily sands of Orange Beach, Ala. He has spent the last several weeks traveling to community forums and fishermen’s organizations up and down the Gulf Coast, warning his neighbors of the dangers of isolation and anger.

“The first suicide occurred in Cordova four years after the spill. I try to explain to people, this is a marathon, and you have to try to stick together. And you have to try to take care of yourself,” Picou said. “Don’t become obsessed with sitting in front of the television watching this wellhead just gush thousands and thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico every minute.”

Even politicians have admitted to feeling overwhelmed.

“I myself believe I am suffering PTSD,” Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) said June 3 as he stood before dozens of locals at a forum here. “I didn’t realize how built up this all was within me.” A few days earlier he had broken down in tears while speaking to the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington.

Stop at any marina or cafe along the coast of Louisiana, and the stories are numbing in their similarity and improbable in their misfortune: homes washed away in Hurricane Katrina, rebuilt, flooded again during Hurricane Gustav. And now this.

“After Katrina and Rita, it was pretty bad. We were closed like three months to get everything repaired and reopened. And then Gustav and Ike. And after that, we were ready to reopen again, and unfortunately the store caught fire,” said Don Griffin, who owns Griffin’s Marina and Ice, a fishing supply shop in Leeville.

“And then the oil spill came along,” he said. “At this point, we’re just waiting for the day that comes when we might have the end in sight.”

Louisiana officials in December had shut down the last of Louisiana Spirit, the massive mental health response network associated with Hurricane Katrina. Now, they’re rushing to reopen it with part of $300 million in social service funds the state has requested, but not yet received, from BP.

“With an uncertain future, anger, stress and fear can be overwhelming. Don’t wait too long to talk about it,” says a radio spot about a 24-hour counseling hotline put up by the state Department of Health and Hospitals.

“Typically in a natural disaster, there’s a very clear onset of the event and closure of the event. The hurricane passes through, and it may have left horrible destruction, but you can basically say, this is what our destruction amounts to. But with this oil spill disaster, there are no boundaries around it,” said Anthony Speier, who is overseeing the Louisiana Spirit program for the state Office of Mental Health.

“The hurricane was an act of God. It’s a little bit easier to take. You can only be angry with God for so long,” said Elmore Rigamer, a psychiatrist who is state medical director of Catholic Charities, which is working closely with Louisiana to send counselors into seaside communities.

“But this — the more we understand that this could have been prevented, and this was just a failure of corporate ethics in terms of profit, really, overriding responsibility, this makes it really difficult to take,” Rigamer said.

He has found it “heartbreaking” figuring out how to advise backwoods fishermen who have never known any place but the bayou and the sea.

“These Cajun fishermen, who’ve always been with their fathers, their grandfathers, on these boats, they’re coming in wanting to know how they can get a GED,” Rigamer said. “I just can’t imagine them in an office.”

Blanchard, 51, said he and the fishermen who supply him spend a lot of time sitting around in his office trying to figure out what to do.

“We start talking, and pretty soon, before you know it, we’re all there crying,” he said. “I never seen so many grown men cry in my life. Tough men, you know? Tough, tough men. Tough as they come. Just break down and cry.”

Becky Tabony has become a fixture in Grand Isle, pedaling her bicycle in a sleeveless shirt and capris up and down the oak-shaded lanes, calling on people who were red-flagged by social workers when they came in looking for help paying utility bills or applying for grocery store vouchers.

The biggest source of stress in her clients so far, she said, is the uncertainty: How much oil is going to be out there? When will it stop? How bad will the fish get hurt? And what happens if a hurricane hits? High winds and seas could bring the oil all the way to New Orleans, residents fear.

“They know the winds and tides. They know what could happen,” said Tabony, the daughter of a Louisiana fisherman, who worked on an oil rig for 12 years before she got her doctorate in psychology.

“They’re not stupid,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “That’s really the hard part. They’re not stupid. If they were dumb, this would be easy. We could tell them anything. You can feed educated people a lot more crap than you can somebody who has common sense and a knowledge of the land, the sea, the very basics.”

Tabony has counseled a boat captain working with wildlife rescuers who can’t stand to see another dying animal; with convenience store owners who stand all day at the counter waiting for tourists; with people who say they’re so mad they feel like they want to hurt somebody.

“They don’t say, ‘I want to kill my neighbor.’ It’s like, they want to take charge of this. And the troubling thing for me is, there’s breaking points for people…. You look at some of these people and you wonder, when is that person going to snap?” she said

Telling who’s at the end of their rope and who’s merely furious can be hard in a town in which cheerful revenge fantasies have become a favorite form of recreation.

Signs bearing the name “Tony Baloney” in a crossed-out circle, an apparent reference to BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward, can be seen along Grand Isle’s main thoroughfare. “For Sale or Rent — Thanks a Lot, BP,” reads a sign on a house near the marina.

“I got no clue what I’m going to do with the rest of my life, and they want to give me a $2,500 check? A kick in the ass, and get the hell out of here? And they [messed] up my waters?” said Trahan, his voice rising in volume as he thought about it. “I’m holdin’ it in as much as I can, but the more I think about it, this is just screwed up! Somebody’s gotta pay!”

Blanchard sat last week watching Hayward’s testimony on the sofa of his lavishly appointed, three-story beach house and couldn’t stop wishing he could meet the man face to face.

“The first thing I’d like to do is punch that CEO in the mouth. That’d make me feel a little bit better, I guess,” he said. “I think I’d give a million dollars for one punch.”

Times staff writer Tina Susman in Grand Isle contributed to this report.