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Environment / Sustainability

Battered in the bayou

February 7, 2011
by Paul Miller and Kimberly Sorensen

The trials of Job, the Biblical figure who lost his family, property, and health, may be all too familiar to some New Orleans residents. Job, in fact, would have empathized with Gulf Coast families who survived the ravages of 2005's Hurricane Katrina only to be hit with the BP oil spill last year.

Still recovering

CSU anthropologist Kate Browne is delving beyond physical catastrophes through research on how the oil spill is impacting U.S. residents still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Since 2005, Browne has been studying issues facing Katrina survivors such as family cohesion, strain, dissolution, and gaps between what Katrina survivors need and what is actually available to them.

“The people I’m studying for this new project are the same people I’ve been following for the past six years,” Browne says. “They just got out of FEMA trailers a year ago and now face an entirely new insult to their way of life. The oil spill is as massive and as human-caused as the failure of the levees during Katrina.

Double-dunk

“It’s a double-dunk,” she adds. “While the material loss of Katrina was catastrophic, the one thing that wasn’t destroyed was their bayou environment with its critical wetlands to buffer them from hurricanes and nurture the seafood that is central to bayou culture.”

Because the oil spill made landfall in many areas of St. Bernard Parish, these same bayou residents are facing incalculable damage to wetlands and fishing waters that are an intricate part of their home environment.

“The closure of fishing waters in St. Bernard Parish affected seafood supply,” Browne says. “The vitality of family networks depends on frequent gatherings that have been happening for generations – and at the center of these gatherings is seafood that comes from just a few miles down the road.”

For these residents, there is no substitute for local seafood such as shrimp and crab. Residents aren’t likely to buy frozen seafood shipped from Thailand.

From local to federal  

Browne’s study, funded by the National Science Foundation, is exploring how the oil spill affects affordability and quality of seafood, the frequency and quality of family gatherings, rituals of reciprocity organized around seafood exchange and preparation, and whether the impact of all these changes in daily life is re-stimulating fear and stress experienced during Katrina.

On a broader level, Browne also will track local and federal responses to the oil spill and how family members on the bayou perceive the effectiveness of different levels of government.

“The hurt of Katrina is still very fresh. The oil spill adds a horrible new dimension to the prospect of more loss,” she says. “It’s beginning to look endless.”

In 2007, Browne and two-time Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Ginny Martin released Still Waiting: Life After Katrina, a documentary that chronicles a family's journey following their Hurricane Katrina evacuation from New Orleans to Dallas, Texas, and their eventual return home.


This story originally appeared in the Winter 2010-11 issue of Colorado State Magazine.