Spill Takes Toll on Gulf Workers’ Psyches


NEW ORLEANS — On a normal night, Hong Le, a deckhand on a fishing boat, would be miles out on the water laying nets and lines to catch tuna. Instead, he lies awake in his rented room agonizing over the money he is not sending to his wife and children in Vietnam and the delay in his longtime dream of bringing them here, apparently dashed by the oil spill.

At each day passes, Mr. Le, 58, says he feels more hopeless. “I just wait at home,” he said hollowly through an interpreter.

Beyond the environmental and economic damage, the toll of the mammoth spill in the Gulf of Mexico is being measured in hopelessness, anxiety, stress, anger, depression and even suicidal thoughts among those most affected, social workers say.

Mindful of the surge in psychological ailments after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, community groups are trying to tend to the collective psyche of fishermen like Mr. Le even as they address more immediate needs like financial aid.

When fishermen arrive to pick up emergency aid checks at the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit group in this city’s Vietnamese-American enclave, crisis counselors from Catholic Charities are on hand to screen for signs of emotional distress and to offer help.

“Are you having trouble sleeping?” the counselors ask through interpreters. “Do you feel out of energy? Do you have thoughts that you would be better off dead?”

Most of the fishermen trooping to the center lack fluency in English or skills beyond fishing, a vocation they have passed on for generations.

“They’re very distraught,” said the deputy director of the community development corporation, Tuan Nguyen. “For a lot of people, fishing is all they know. They don’t like handouts. They’re very proud. They don’t know how tomorrow is going to be.”

Catholic Charities reported this week that of the 9,800 people the counselors had approached since May 1 in Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes, 1,593 were referred for counseling because of signs of depression.

“It’s the fear of losing everything,” said Representative Anh Cao, a Republican from New Orleans who has assembled a response team to travel along the Gulf Coast to assess constituents’ needs.

Mr. Cao said he had met two fishermen in Plaquemines Parish who told him they were contemplating suicide. While those cases are “extreme,” Mr. Cao said, they reflect how some people “are approaching a point of despair.”

Officials with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals said staff members had counseled 749 people in the last week of May and the first week of June to “mitigate” symptoms that could lead to destructive behavior.

“Most people are in disbelief,” said Dr. Tony Speier, deputy assistant secretary of the department’s office of mental health. “There’s fear not just for economic survival, but for a way of life.”

While state officials have emphasized the resiliency of Gulf Coast residents, who suffered through Hurricane Katrina and other major storms like Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008, experts say the region should brace for long-term psychological strain.

Researchers who studied the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill said coastal residents of Alaska saw a higher incidence of suicide, divorce, domestic violence and substance abuse. To this day, many are still dealing with the effects of the environmental damage, economic losses and lawsuits.

At the Center for Wellness and Mental Health in Chalmette, which opened last year to treat cases of post-traumatic stress disorder lingering from Hurricane Katrina, the staff is checking in on fishermen’s families, mining relationships that were forged when volunteers helped rebuild homes after the hurricane.

An effort is under way to invite wives to receive counseling and learn breathing techniques and other skills to cope with stress, said Joycelyn Heintz, the coordinator of the center, which was founded by the nonprofit St. Bernard Project and the Health Sciences Center at Louisiana State University.

Rachel Morris, one of the wives who has agreed to counseling, said her husband, Louis Lund Jr., 34, was a shell of his formerly joyful self.

After the oil spill grounded fishing, Mr. Lund managed to get a job cleaning the gulf waters for BP, the oil company responsible for the spill, Ms. Morris said. But he is stricken by the sight of dead fish on his cleanup outings, she said, and for the first time has started to frequent bars with other fishermen.

Mr. Lund frets over whether he will be able to pass on his trade to his children, a 13-month-old son and 10-year-old daughter, or even remain in New Orleans, where volunteers just finished rebuilding the family’s Katrina-flooded home last October.

“When I saw the oil rig explosion on television, I was, like, ‘O.K., oil rig explosion,’ ” Ms. Morris, 26, said, adding that she told herself to pray for the 11 rig workers who were killed. “Two days later it was, ‘The oil is not stopping.’ That’s when my husband went from a happy guy to a zombie consumed by the oil spill.”

She said Mr. Lund had refused to accept counseling. He has lashed out occasionally, she said, venting his anger one evening last week after waiting in line for nearly four hours at the local civic center to pick up his two-week paycheck.

Asked about his state of mind, Mr. Lund told a reporter: “If you’re not out there in it, you can’t comprehend what this is about. We’re going to be surrounded by it. You’re going to smell it right here.”

Similar frustration was evident one morning last week at the Mary Queen of Vietnam center, where 50 people who had been waiting since as early as 4 a.m. for the doors to open around 9 a.m. suddenly began shouting, pushing and shoving one another. The commotion was soon quelled, but not the expressions of exhaustion and worry.

One of the groups hardest hit by the spill is Vietnamese fishermen, who make up a significant part of the about 12,400 commercial licensed fishermen in Louisiana (state officials had no firm estimate, but locals estimate they are as much as a third).

Having already experienced displacement — emigrating from Vietnam and in some cases losing their homes after Hurricane Katrina — they now face a crisis of epic proportions with an uncertain duration.

Interviewed in a sparsely furnished room he rents for $300 a month in a house with bars on the windows, Mr. Le said he was surviving on handouts after a lifetime of self-sufficiency.

He arrived in the United States in 1979. Nine years ago, he married on a visit home to Phan Thiet in southeastern Vietnam, assuring his wife that one day she would join him here.

Mr. Le said he used to send up to $5,000 a year to his wife and their 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. As his family turns to other relatives for support, he is living on an initial payment of $1,200 from BP and whatever aid comes his way.

In phone conversations, his wife urges him to find a job outside the fishing industry. He applied at two Vietnamese restaurants, but neither would hire him for even the most menial work, Mr. Le said.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he murmured. “Any opportunity for work, I’ll do it.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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