Diverse Community of the Bayou Laments Life After Oil Leak

Fishing businesses suffer as generations of traditions are being threatened.

July 12, 2010, 9:29 PM

July 13, 2010 — -- For the people of the Louisiana bayou and Cajun territory, the water of the Gulf of Mexico is not just a way to make a living, it is their history.

Diane Sawyer of "World News" visited several towns in this part of Louisiana to speak with residents and hear how they were adjusting after the oil leak as BP awaited the results of testing on a new cap.

Click HERE to see the journey "World News" took on our map.

Betty Reyes' husband, Raymond, is a fisherman but now he is working for BP.

"Raymond's out in the Gulf right now, looking for oil. They're running around looking for oil," she said.

She and her neighbors said that they were told the seafood was safe to eat, but they were still wary.

"They saying our fishing is good so we can go ahead and August, we'll hope it'll [the Grand Bayou Canal] open up [to fishing] again. We hoping, the shrimp and the crab. Yeah, it's all good."

She and the other women said they had to forgo their favorite weekend cookout of shrimp boil -- mounds of shrimp, crab, corn and potatoes -- because of the possible dangers from the oil leak.

"We have to eat other things, yes. We're having to eat beef and pork and chicken for our meats," one neighbor said.

Betty's brother Dwight Reyes said he made his living on his boat.

"That's my home," he said. "I go out every night and come back in every morning."

He has been a shrimper for 25 years and said he did not think he could start over.

"I'm too old to do anything right now," he said. "I'm going to be 64 years old and that's too old to learn at something new."

He received two checks for $5,000 each from BP as part of the company's effort to help out-of-work fishermen. With his boats, house and groceries, he said, his monthly bills amount to $1,500.

"I'm caught up with it, but next month, I ain't going to be caught up with it," Reyes said.

Like his sister Betty, he said he hoped the canal would be reopened for August so he and the other fishermen could fish and make money.

For now, he said he and other fishermen were bringing in shrimp and money. "We do most of our work in here [the canal]. We don't go too far off."

"We go out. We catch whatever we can. We fill the box up. We go selling. We go back out again. Some nights you make $1,000. Some nights you make more than that. It all depends on where the shrimps run. ... What kind of weather we have."

Point a la Hache, La., was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, but its residents say the BP oil spill is much worse.

Villahfo Medjukovic, an oyster fisherman, came to Louisiana from Croatia 20 years ago, when he was just 6 years old. He took up fishing, which is what his great-grandfather did. He said he used to bring back hundreds of pounds of oysters. On Monday, there were just two living oysters -- the rest had died. Medjukovic could not see any oil or dispersant.

Stanley Encalade, Medjukovic's fishing partner, has lived here his entire life. He said it was hard to sleep these days.

"We're not accustomed to food stamps and all that," he said. "Whatever we caught, we ate."

"Some people you can give them a billion dollars and they are content. They don't care what they lose or whatever," he said. "Our lifestyle was not based on a billion dollars. Our lifestyle was based on growing up on the bayou."

Now Encalade and others fear that way of life is gone forever.

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," he said, pointing to his arm. "That's bayou water."

The families of Lafitte 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 is safe. The Higgins have depleted their savings and had to raise prices. They've even had to take food from the church charity.

"My biggest fear is just not being here," Dottie Higgins said. "What are we going to do? We can't go find jobs. It's just scary."

In Buras, La., the Vietnamese who make up a third to a half of the 13,000 fishermen in the Gulf said language barriers and a lack of boats meant they were often overlooked for BP's Vessels of Opportunity program.

Robert Nguyen, a 56-year-old local community leader, said he has been out of work since the day of the spill and has lost $80,000 of profit so far this season.

A lot of fishermen, including himself, are having trouble making payments on their boats, he said.

"These people [boat captains from Texas] are coming in, taking away jobs from local fishermen, which is only thing they know how to do," he said. "And now they're sitting back and choosing who gets to work and who doesn't, and these people feel like they're being treated not fair at all. ... And that's now what America is all about."

Nguyen received $5,000 from BP, not nearly enough to take care of his family of six children. Nguyen has been in the United States since 1976 and doesn't know where he will go if he is unable to make a living here.

He and other fishermen said they are still waiting to be called for BP's Vessels of Opportunity program. It's meant to give local boat operators a chance to assist with the oil cleanup.

"It's hard for me at my age and hard for me to start all over again. Not only me, all fishermen," he said.

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