Alabama and the Oil Spill: Bayou la Batre
It’s hard to put a number on the economic losses the Gulf region has experienced since the B-P oil spill. But it’s clear that communities along the coast are hurting. The tiny Alabama fishing town of Bayou la Batre was still recovering from hurricanes Katrina and Ivan when the oil spill sent it into another tailspin. For many residents there just isn’t enough money for basics, even food. WBHM’s Tanner Latham has a profile of one church that’s using its food pantry to feed a large segment of the population.
Anna Bosarge paces the gymnasium floor at the Bayou la Batre Community Center. She calls numbers out to the men, women, and children crowding the rows of metal folding chairs. They’re black, white, Hispanic, Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese. They all live in and around this South Alabama community. They’re all either unemployed, live on supplemental security incomes, or receive food stamps. And they’ve all been directly affected by the Gulf oil spill.
Bosarge volunteers weekly for this program, the Hemley Road Church of Christ Food Pantry. She organizes the order of the people who shuffle through the food distribution line-long tables butting end-to-end, piled with canned goods, eggs, peanut butter, and other groceries.
After hurricanes Ivan and Katrina, Daphne German co-founded the church and the food pantry in 2006.
“It was just something I wanted to do. I wanted to have a small food pantry, so I could help people in the community. And we have two rooms and a hall in our main church building that was our food pantry, and we were serving, a high for me would be 124 twice a month. I was opening it twice a month.”
At that time, this fishing village was known as the “Seafood Capital of Alabama.” It was not only suffering physically from flood damage, but also economically. 80% of the work force was connected to the seafood industry. Shrimpers, crabbers, oystermen, processors, and shipyard workers. And work just stopped.
It took five years, but things were getting better. Then, on April 20, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, eventually leaking 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf.
“I was working at a shrimp processing shop, and since then, work’s really slowed down. No work. And I’ve got a baby on the way, I’ve got two step daughters, I need all I can get.”
That’s Wayne Reid. He’s one of the roughly 1,200 people the food pantry now feeds a couple of times each month. It’s astonishing, really, considering the population of Bayou la Batre is only about 2,300.
Daphne German distributes food a couple of times per month. She’s reached out to a vast network of churches and other relief organizations throughout the country. And, she recently acquired around 100,000 pounds of food through a grant won by the Bay Area Food Bank. ‘That may sound like a lot, but it’s only enough for 5 food distribution days between January and March next year.
You’d never know German was 69 years old. Her phone starts ringing around 5 a.m. most mornings and doesn’t quiet until 10 o’clock at night. She hands out hugs like they’re fire sale fliers and directs volunteers with a symphony conductor’s efficiency. She has the vigor of someone in her 30s.
“It’s fun. I don’t mean to be smart aleck, but how many people do you know that’s 69 that can do that. If you stop, then you stop. I have never watched soap operas, so I’m not going to start in my old age. I am not.”
To be fair, German admits being bossy, and she’s been known to have a little temper. She says she’s no saint. But sometimes it takes that kind of attitude and directness to secure thousands of frozen dinners or move pallets of tomatoes. And it requires that boundless energy to face these faces week after week.
“These people is been independent all their life,” says Bayou la Batre mayor Stan Wright. “You know, we had the highest dropout rate anywhere in the state of Alabama, because the people here they went fishing with their poppa or their daddy since they could walk. So, therefore, they are very proud. You know, they’re used to going out and utilizing this water on a daily basis, and a lot of them live from day to day. This is a very different, isolated fishing village-of very proud people.”
Wright grew up here working the waters of the Mississippi Sound. He’s an oyster processor by trade, but his business has been shut down since the spill. Still, he believes in this town’s resilience.
“These people special. My brother made a quote one time, he says you know the people in this area is like a Timex watch. They take a licking and keep on ticking. And how true that is. It would be so easy for us to throw the towel in and move north and say, “to heck with it, it ain’t worth it” but, you know, when you dig your toes in here in this mud in this oyster gravel and drop your anchor, you know, it’s hard to get you away from here. It’s worth it. It’s worth the battle. It really is.”
You see that perseverance over and over at the Food Pantry. Many of the volunteers are themselves recipients. They arrive early to the distribution, set everything up, then later load their own boxes to take back home to their families. They say they have no money to give, so they give their time and their energy. Or, they simply volunteer because someone at some point helped them.
Remember Anna Bosarge, the one who calls the numbers? She often loses her voice for a couple of days after.. Why does she do it?
“I have a 7 year old grandbaby who when she was 6 was diagnosed with cancer. And this church and some people all over the country came, and they redone her trailer. So, you know, when someone does a good deed. In return, you give a good deed.”
~ Tanner Lathan, December 23, 2010