The View from Grand Isle

GRAND ISLE IS Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island and is normally a destination spot for tourists who want to experience the Gulf Coast Cajun-style. The sandy beaches that summer tourists and residents once flocked to are closed after being sullied by the crude oil washing up since late May, following the April 20 explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform.

The explosion killed 11 workers. Hundreds of wild birds and other sea creatures have been injured or killed by the oil spill. Other victims are the state’s rich seafood and tourism industries.

Irvin Magri Jr., a retired New Orleans policeman and head of the Louisiana Board of Pardons under former Gov. Mike Foster, has lived on Grand Isle for most of his (nearly) 64 years, and said this is the worst thing ever to happen there.

“As bad as Hurricane Katrina was, it doesn’t even come close in comparison,” said Magri, who owns one of the island’s real estate firms and is also a local radio personality.

Grand Isle is just under eight miles long and is one mile across at its widest point. It has a year-round population of about 1,200. During summer months that number increases to more than 8,000. Among Magri’s holdings on the island is a 10-bedroom, four-bathroom beach house on the shore. He said the house normally has constant occupancy throughout the long Louisiana summer. Since the April 20 explosion Magri has experienced a “100 percent cancellation.”

“In the past we have had other things happen, including hurricanes and tropical storms,” he said. “But this is without a doubt the worst thing to ever happen to Grand Isle—environmentally speaking or otherwise.”

Magri said the only salvation in the face of the mounting disaster is that all of the island’s rental properties, including his beach house, have been rented by BP and the state and federal governments to house cleanup workers and officials. “This is good, but we all know it is short-term and won’t last,” he said. “Our annual income is pretty much made from April through September, and by all accounts this situation will only get worse, much worse, before it gets better.”

On the day I contacted Irv Magri for this story, he was preparing for his weekly radio program on RAJUN KAJUN 100.3 FM/1600 AM. As in recent weeks, the show’s main topic of discussion was the oil spill. A BP official was among Magri’s guests that day. During a pre-air discussion, the official expressed concern over Magri’s assessment of the amount of oil spilling from the deepwater well.

“Sir, you can take issue with what I say but I am getting my information from the latest numbers released to the public through the Associated Press,” he told the official. “You are free to say whatever you like but I encourage you to look at the numbers being released.”

For nearly two months BP had wavered on the amount of oil belching out of the well. The constant changes in flow rates, coupled with a lack of overall information, has fueled a deep distrust among those living on the island.

“All we ever asked for is the truth, and that is something we all feel like BP has yet to do for us,” Magri said. “They are not being forthcoming with information and their overall response has, at least in my experience, not been very good.” At the time, BP was admitting to 5,000 barrels per day. Spill observers now say that about 60,000 barrels (2.5 million gallons) of crude continue surging into the Gulf each day.

LAUGHABLE CLAIMS PROCESS—Kimberly Chauvin, whose family owns the Mariah Jade Shrimp Company in Chauvin, La., agreed with Magri’s assessment of BP’s response. “It’s laughable. When I see their commercials on the television and they are talking about how they are here to help and to do the right thing for Louisiana, it makes me so mad that I want to pick up something and throw it at the screen,” she said.

“It’s an absolute joke,” she continued. “We made a claim when all this first started and I have still not yet heard anything back from them.” The Chauvin family invested $60,000 in their processing plant at the beginning of this year, for what was expected to be a bumper brown-shrimp crop, only to see the doors close before handling their first haul.

Besides being a processor and dock operator, the Chauvin family also owns and operates three shrimp boats, on which they spent a substantial amount of money to prepare for the shrimp season. Shrimping is shut down and the boats are under contract with BP for the cleanup effort. “We can’t get that money back and we have not been able to process any shrimp. So how do we survive and pay our bills?” Chauvin asked. “This is a really bad time for all of us—the processors, the shrimpers and the dock owners … all.”

The Louisiana Legislature is another casualty. The annual session was only one month old when the spill occurred. Dr. G. Pearson Cross, chairman of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Political Science Department, said Gov. Bobby Jindal has been “missing in action. … The spill has taken the governor away from state business and as a result his agenda has largely stalled,” Cross said. “The session has also stalled and the major legislative lifting has yet to be done.”

Plugging large budget shortfalls with the state’s “rainy day” fund was a major legislative focus, but lawmakers never reached an agreement on when to repay the fund. “It has been an extremely unproductive session, and I would lay that at the feet of the oil disaster, certainly,” Cross said. He added that lawmakers may find it necessary to create “special legislation to go after BP, to foster accountability and help those put out of work and the industries challenged by the oil disaster.”

Jindal has asked BP for almost $460 million to fund a food-safety program to protect the state’s seafood industry from future damage and regain consumer trust. Fears of contamination from the oil and the chemical dispersants used in the early days of the spill have eroded consumer confidence in Louisiana seafood. The Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board estimates that the seafood industry has a $2.3 billion impact on the state’s economy and supplies about 40 percent of the nation’s seafood.

BP is paying for claims that include bodily injury or illness, property damage, and loss of income. BP spokeswoman Stephanie Shanks said that claims are processed in a timely fashion. By June 16, she said, there were 18,546 claims filed and a total of $39,114,031 paid. Claims of less than $5,000 are, on average, paid within five days, while those between $5,000 and $25,000 are processed in nine days. Claims greater than $25,000 require more documentation and review. Shanks said the process is document-driven, as claimants are required to provide proof that they have been harmed.

There’s a growing sense that South Louisianans will be lining up for claims for months and perhaps years to come.

Shawn Martin is a Louisiana reporter. At the American Press in Lake Charles he led the nation in reporting on the Jack Abramoff shakedown of Native American tribes.