GRAND ISLE — People on Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island live on the edge. The only road to Grand Isle, La. 1, is sinking, a victim of coastal erosion and human neglect. A large-scale project to improve the highway is only partially finished, with much of the work incomplete and no money to pay for it.
The island itself, as a new government study detailed earlier this week, is also sinking.
The islanders’ isolation is made even clearer in early December, when tourist season is over and many of the colorful summer camps that line the highway are unoccupied and empty.
The sight today is a stark contrast to the summer, when the island served as a primary staging area for BP oil-spill response teams and crude washed up on the beaches. Traffic on the two-lane highway was often bumper to bumper with response vehicles.
“It took you 20 or 30 minutes to get home,” said Beulah McVay, a lifelong Grand Isle resident.
President Barack Obama walked Grand Isle’s beaches on a steamy day in late May, when the island was a hotbed of activity. On Wednesday — a chilly, windy day — not one person was in sight on the beach.
To residents, the empty camps and beaches, idle boats and cold temperature represent nothing out of the ordinary — these are the slow months for the island, when the camp owners, sport fishermen and revelers go home and locals can enjoy their lives in isolation.
But some residents say this particular winter seems off. The island housed a different cast of characters this summer than the typical tourists, and many of those out-of-towners remain on the island as oil-spill cleanup work continues. While still a largely quiet place, the presence of work crews is off-putting to some residents. With fishing rodeos months away, businesses that should be closed as cold weather moves in are booked to capacity while some that should be working overtime have not worked much at all.
Some wonder whether life on Grand Isle will ever get back to normal.
A DIFFERENT WINTER
Dean Blanchard, the island’s only shrimp processor, is among those who say things just don’t feel right.
He sits in his office with his feet on the desk, halfway through a cigarette. A lifelong fisherman and shrimp processor, he hasn’t had much work lately.
“The shrimp ought to be hitting on the beach,” he said. “We haven’t bought shrimp in three days. This was going to be a record-breaking year.”
Blanchard has been an outspoken critic of BP and the federal government, and his dock has served as a rallying point for local shrimpers, many who Blanchard says are now out of work because of the spill.
Blanchard, who remains convinced the oil spill has had long-term and possibly permanent impacts on Gulf seafood, said he is unsure what will happen to his business if things don’t pick up soon.
“That’s what keeps me up at night,” Blanchard said. “The uncertainty is the worst part. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Dodie Vegas, who owns the Bridgeside Marina with her husband Buggy, said they have been busy in the eight months since the spill, but they have had to adapt to some changes.
The marina, which also serves as a hotel, had all its rooms booked by response workers this summer. Bridgeside remains full with workers now — a phenomenon owed entirely to the oil spill.
“We have more business now that we would normally,” she said. But these are not the same kind of tenants she is accustomed to serving.
“I miss the kids,” she said. “We didn’t have any kids this summer. A lot of these guys are mad workers.”
They also had to change the merchandise inside the marina, which normally accommodates visiting fishermen.
“In the summer, we were down at least 60 to 80 percent in the marina,” she said. “We sold almost no bait and tackle.”
They now sell hardware, meant to appeal work crews.
“It was a rough summer for us,” said June Crosby, an employee at the island’s main grocery store, Sureway Supermarket.
Crosby said the store also feels the impacts of serving day laborers and construction crews.
Many of the workers, she said, come in only to cash checks and send money orders rather than buy loads of groceries. Crosby said the workers seem to buy alcohol and cigarettes more than anything else.
Vegas does not complain about the extra money that has come in this winter, but she said she is getting wary.
Winter is the time she and her husband generally close up shop, taking a break before the busy summer. That won’t happen as long as they remain booked with response workers.
And Vegas, like Blanchard, said these changes are accompanied by a heavy feeling of uncertainty.
“We just don’t know,” she said. “If these winter storms stir up oil at the bottom, it’s still out there.”
She shrugged off a comparison between the oil spill and hurricanes the island has weathered.
It’s not the scale of damage that bothers her, but how the island recovers.
“With hurricanes, you know what you have to do,” she said. “We don’t have a clue now. It’s not in our hands.”
“A lot of people here are mad,” said McVay, who has lived on the island for 76 years.
There is animosity directed toward the response workers who remain on the island during a time when locals generally enjoy their isolation, she said.
“If you live here, you really enjoy the winter months,” said Karen Hopkins, a 13-year island resident. “It’s quiet, and it’s nothing but locals.”
Hopkins said the influx of outsiders bothers her not just because they are outsiders but because they are taking jobs from locals.
“How can you justify bringing in people who aren’t from here when we have fishermen who are out of work,” she asked.
Curtis Thomas, a BP spokesman who worked in Grand Isle for much of the summer, is no stranger to the tension between residents and response workers.
“It’s an interesting dilemma,” he said. “On one hand, you have those who claim that BP is gone and that we left as soon as the well was capped. On the other hand, you have residents saying they’re getting tired of BP’s presence and they want us to go home.”
Thomas said BP made a commitment to clean the spill, and they will remain until that job is done.
“We’re still there because there is still work to be done,” he said. “And we didn’t leave just because the media went away or because the well was capped.”
Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle said he is hopeful the beaches will be clean by spring and that most of the cleanup workers will be gone.
“We’re staying on top of it to get our beaches and state park open for spring break,” he said. “We have less and less (cleanup workers) everyday. Hopefully they will be gone by then.”
Todd Beyer, a BP spokesman at the Unified Area Command in New Orleans, said BP shares Camardelle’s hopes.
“We are working closely with local officials to make sure the best available cleanup techniques are applied in order to reach that goal,” he said.
Beyer said the size of BP’s spring presence will depend on weather conditions and the speed with which different cleanup methods are approved.
“The determining factor will be what work remains to be done and then making sure we have the appropriate amount of personnel on hand to complete the task as thoroughly and quickly as possible,” he said.
Camardelle also said the island has more construction going on than normal — about $175 million in new road construction, a new town gymnasium and La. 1 improvements — all adding to the unusually noticeable presence of outsiders.
While he expressed similar concerns about out-of-town workers, he pointed out they have helped spur commerce on the island, ever more important because of “our lost summer.”
Crosby said island residents relied on the media to report cleanup progress as much as anyone, even though much of that work was being done on the island. As the media’s presence has diminished, so has their knowledge of the recovery and operations taking place on Grand Isle. “Everyone’s frustrated,” she said. “Most of us are left in the dark about what’s going on. We know there’s more oil out there.”
LIKE NOTHING HAPPENED
Mike Barrileaux and Bob Broussard largely have Grand Isle State Park to themselves.
They are staying in one of only two campers parked in the area.
The two, both from New Iberia, are on vacation this winter, and they are enjoying the peace and quiet summer tourists rarely experience.
“The scenery is still nice,” Broussard said. “All the wildlife and the birds are here like nothing ever happened.”
Oil spill or not, they said the island remains a favorite place for them to spend vacation time.
Despite uncertainty about long-term effects of the spill, Crosby said she remains optimistic the island will come back in full swing by summer.
“It’s progressing pretty good,” she said. “Our morale has been pretty good. That’s just the kind of people we are.”
Camardelle also said he remains confident.
“We’ve come a long way trying to get our island back together,” he said. “Grand Isle isn’t going anywhere.”