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Gulf Coast Oil Spill: Beyond the Economic Loss

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf Coast caused 4.9 million barrels of crude oil to spill into the Coastal waters from Texas through Florida. BP’s oil continued to hemorrhage into the ocean for the subsequent 87 days. Waters remained closed and the fishing season of 2010 never opened.  In the end, the explosion eradicated the short-term fishing industry along the Coast, devastated its oyster industry, and destabilized the ecologic balance of Coastal fishing waters.  A less-publicized and, as yet, wholly uncompensated result of the oil spill was the accelerated erosion of an honorable culture.   

Vietnamese and other Asian immigrants comprise approximately 30 % of the population of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, a small fishing town located 40 miles south of Mobile. Since their emigration after the Fall of Saigon, Vietnamese immigrants built new lives within the confines of American law while preserving intact cultural values and practices from their country of origin. Together, they shrimped, shucked oysters and trapped crab. Over the years, their adherence to communal networking, the multi-generational family, and camaraderie in seafooding had not diminished despite bigotry, westernization or Hurricane Katrina.     

The town and its people were identified and inextricably connected by the chain of distribution in the seafood industry. As such, the sudden loss of this industry was a violent assault on the identity of the Vietnamese fishermen. As of April 21, 2010, they had no place to go and they had nothing to do.  This lack of purpose and income would erode their communal interdependence, independence from government subsidies, and personal pride. 

Destruction caused by the spill was complete in that everyone’s income was dependent upon the waters and no one could fish. Further intensifying the gravity of the situation was the timing of the spill. It occurred when the fishing industry was scheduled to start and most people had depleted the prior year’s reserve of savings and seafood. They could not look to each other for financial or nutritional support, as was the custom, because everyone was impoverished by this catastrophe. Those who reached out to neighbors for help made requests only from desperation and with shame. Many had to refuse assistance to neighbors who had helped them in the past. They, too, felt palpable shame. 

According to Grace Scire, Gulf Coast Regional Director of Boat People SOS (BPSOS), a national nonprofit organization with over 30 years of experience serving Vietnamese Americans, many Vietnamese were forced to seek public and charitable assistance for the first time. Requests for assistance with applications for food stamps at the BPSOS in the Bayou rose dramatically after the spill. Sister Marilyn Moore, a Providence Hospital social worker who has worked in the Bayou since Katrina, reports increased requests from the local Vietnamese for prescription drug assistance.

Initially, there was publicity that was followed by an outpouring of short-term help from various charity organizations. However, after the oil rig stopped bleeding oil, publicity dwindled and public interest moved on to the next catastrophe. Family dynamics changed in response to mounting hunger, medical and utility bills. Families were separated as heads of households went to different states to seek employment.  Wives remained home to raise the children and navigate the difficult path of BP’s Gulf Coast Claim Facility (the GCCF), the organization charged with the responsibility for providing timely recompense to victims of the oil spill. 

By the winter of 2010, the possibility that the fishing industry and their former lifestyle would return to normal was less realistic. In response, the GCCF provided grants to local business centers to teach skills building and new job training for Bayou residents.  However, while younger, English-speaking members of the community could participate in these initiatives, the classes were much less available to non-English speaking Asians.  Even if they spoke English, they would experience inconceivable difficulty adapting to a new profession and a new way of life. The Vietnamese people have naturally resisted the loss of the culture they have stringently protected and preserved until now. Today, their community leaders must fight to prevent this unacceptable and irreplaceable loss.

In summary, the Vietnamese social network, familial cohesiveness and cultural dignity strongly depended upon the thriving, communal relationship to the waters and the seafood industry. The near-fatal wound delivered by the BP Oil Spill to the seafood industry threatens to sacrifice the Vietnamese culture in Bayou La Batre, Alabama. Loss of one’s cultural dignity is a deplorable casualty of big business.

(By Mary Ellen Lacy, DC, NETWORK Lobbyist)