During Memorial Day weekend, Louisiana coastal communities got a grim look at their future. The annual Plaquemines Parish Seafood Festival went on as usual, but the group's website pleaded with potential visitors, emphasizing the local bounty was safe to eat. Uncertain of what's to come this summer, organizers of July's Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo canceled the event (an "Island Aid" benefit concert will be held that weekend instead). And, for foodies, the unthinkable has occurred: Drago's is now forced to serve imported mussels rather than locally harvested oysters. "It's heartbreaking," says owner Tommy Cvitanovich. "But we've got to do what it takes to survive."
Consider this: Hurricane Katrina closed Louisiana waters to fishermen for days. With BP and the federal government now agreeing that the oil gusher on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico may not be stanched until August, our coastal neighbors have been thrust into unimaginable economic chaos just as summer begins — the time they should be prospering. Jim King, who rents kayaks and camp space on Grand Isle during the tourist-heavy summer months, told the New York Daily News he has not rented anything for 40 days. Mary Tutwiler's story (News & Views) of a family of struggling oyster farmer's is a not uncommon one. The repercussions aren't limited to coastal parishes. Metro New Orleans restaurants, virtually all of which depend on fresh local seafood, also will be affected, as will Gulf Coast tourism in general.
Louisianans are rightly furious at this situation, and many have expressed our feelings of powerlessness against the destructive muck fouling our marshes, tarring our beaches and killing wildlife. We can't stop the oil gusher, but there are some things we can — and must — do to mitigate the disaster:
• As part of this year's hurricane plan, schedule a summer vacation in the coastal parishes. Get to know the people. Stay in their cabins, eat at their restaurants, drink at their bars. Hear their stories and share them with friends and relatives back home. Provide monetary and moral support to the victims of this catastrophe. Some on the coast feel the nation doesn't care about their plight. Let them know you do.
• Eat local seafood. As of the first week of June, 70 percent of the state's fisheries were still open and perfectly safe. Thirty percent of America's domestic catch comes from Louisiana, says Ewell Smith of the Louisiana Seafood and Marketing Board, which is keeping close tabs on seafood safety. The fishermen and shrimpers represented by the board ask you to have confidence in them and their product. A great way to show solidarity with them will be at the Louisiana Seafood Festival June 11-13 at the French Market.
• Support the New Orleans service industry. Louisiana is about to begin a $15 million campaign to tell tourists we're open. Spread that message to out-of-state friends by word of mouth, email and social networking. Ask them to pass it on: If you want to help, visit south Louisiana.
• Businesses, consider new ways to extend a hand. In the months after Katrina, Louisiana residents made a point of patronizing local businesses. It's time to give back. (This summer, Gambit will run ads in other alternative weeklies across the country with information about how to donate to charities serving coastal residents. The paper also will offer discount ad rates to local restaurants.)
• Donate time, food or money to Second Harvest Food Bank, which has begun targeting relief efforts to coastal families.
• Demand action from elected officials at the state and national levels. Remind them this isn't a "Louisiana problem" any more than the destruction of the Grand Canyon would be an "Arizona problem." On May 30, an estimated 1,000 people gathered at Washington Artillery Park to demonstrate against BP and to advocate for Gulf residents. Those images went around the world and intensified media coverage of the calamity. By joining future protests, you can keep the heat on Washington — and BP.
Nothing can take away the pain we feel when we see an oil-fouled marsh, a dead pelican or our neighbors' agony, and our righteous fury will not easily subside. But remember this: What got us through Katrina, more than anything else, was our service to one another here in Louisiana. It's time to help each other again.