ABC News' Eric Noll reports from Lafitte, La.:
In the tiny country town of Lafitte, La., residents use their water like highways. Their backyards back up to a crisp, marshy bayou. They park their boats and walk right up to their kitchens. Children wade in the clear, clean water while their fathers put on hazmat suits and cart boom to the devastated gulf only a few miles away. For now, Lafitte’s bayou is safe. “My biggest fears is that oil gets on this water and they shut us down completely,” said Richard Smith, a lifelong fisherman. Unless the government declares his home a hazard, he intends to stay in Lafitte. “I’ve been here all my life. It’s my way of living. That’s not blood” — Smith points to his arm – “that’s bayou water.” Smith cracks a few crab legs caught that morning for everyone at his home to sample. The taste so fresh and the meat so plump, Smith says he eats it proudly every day. The taste, he fears, is an endangered species. His supply has never been so low. Along Lafitte’s bayou, tall green grass and thick marshlands stretch far into the horizon. The smell of the bayou is distinct – sweet and fresh. No one crosses each other without friendly waves and greetings. The families of Lafitte smile through pain. They say it feels like there has been a death in the family. They’re grieving a tremendous loss – their home. Dottie Higgins and her husband, Denny, are third-generation owners of Higgins Seafood, a modest seafood shack that is inches from the water. She gets phone calls every day from people asking whether her seafood’s safe. The Higgins have depleted their savings and raised prices.
“My biggest fear is just not being here,” Higgins said. “What are we going to do? We can’t go find jobs. It’s just scary.” Her children, grandchildren, in-laws and grandparents all live next door to each other. Lafitte’s population is about 8,500. Its economy is almost entirely supported by commercial and charter fishermen, shrimpers and crabbers. So far, most of the fishermen have maintained their income through a Vessels of Opportunity Program, which contracts with BP to employ workers who lay booms and skim oil. For the mayor of Lafitte, Tim Kerner, representing his community means fighting for them every day. “We’re making sure Lafitte fishermen are the ones being hired to clean up Lafitte,” he said. There are only four restaurants in the town of Lafitte, and Kerner has made sure that each of them gets a week’s rotation each month to provide the nearly 3,000 meals needed to feed the cleanup crew. Backing up to a swamp where alligators roam free and century-old willow trees hang low, Restaurant Des Familles, famous for serving local seafood, is beginning to change its menu. It’s been struggling to find enough seafood to serve – scouring every contact it has to keep its product fresh and local. The restaurant took oysters off the menu and started serving rib eye – both firsts for the nearly 20-year-old restaurant. “We’re going to have to change our format,” said co-owner Brooke Zar. “We’re a seafood restaurant. It’s going to get to the point where we’re going to have to change that.” Zar and her husband, Bryan, have been able to stay afloat financially by making and delivering catered lunches to oil cleanup crews. Last year, summer was their busy season. Now, the out-of-work Lafitte fishermen are as idle as their boats. To make money, they take 40-hour classes to certify themselves as cleanup workers. The fishermen will learn how to carry and pickup boom, dispose of oil while wearing hazmat uniforms and even perform CPR on fellow workers if the stifling heat causes them to pass out. “People have no idea how difficult it is to move around in hazmat uniforms. How much they sweat,” said Don Gill, a safety trainer. Gill has had to ready work contracts for several of his students because some of them can’t read or write. “We’ve had to talk some people through contracts. Some people do not have a formal education in this day and age. It just happens in this part of the world,” Gill said. If they pass the test required for certification, these fishermen turn hazardous waste specialists will get their assignments, and their paychecks next week. They’ll work 12-hour shifts – heading out at dawn and heading home home in time to park their boats in their backyards and watch the sun set.