Gulf oil spill spews anxiety and despair

Sunday, June 27, 2010
By Paul Martin

Casandra Andrews
AL.com
Sunday, June 27, 2010

In March, officers with the Bayou La Batre Police Department responded to 470 calls, according to their records.

Two months later — after a ruptured well began gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, imperiling the fishing industry in five states and idling thousands of workers — the police calls in the Bayou jumped to 800.

“That is an empirical indicator that the community is extremely disrupted,” said Steven Picou, a sociology professor at the University of South Alabama, who has studied the impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska for more than 20 years.

Even worse, Picou said, the people of the Gulf may be “fast-tracking the
social and psychological aspects because of the incredible size of this catastrophe. The trust factor is gone in regards to BP and the Coast Guard.

“This is your worst nightmare,” Picou said. “It’s like an amoebae out there. It comes and it goes. It’s underwater. It’s a monster.”

After the Exxon Valdez spill, the rates of suicide, domestic violence and divorce surged in the areas most affected by the contamination of Prince Edward Sound.

Picou and others wonder if the same is ahead for Gulf communities where, for generations, families have made a living from local waters.

Last week, a charter fishing captain in Baldwin County, William Allen “Rookie” Kruse, took his life on his boat.

So far, only a few new patients have come to the AltaPointe mental health clinic in Bayou La Batre seeking help because of the spill, according to Dr. Sandra Parker, the medical director and a psychiatrist.

She figures that it’s just a matter of time.

“People are still in shock and denial, and it takes a little while for things to sink in,” Parker said. “One of the big problems in this situation is fear of the unknown. Folks who earn their living in the Bayou, they don’t know when this will ever end.”

Bayou Police Sgt. Jason Edwards said crime is up across the board in the area that comprises the heart of south Mobile County’s staggered seafood industry.

Spencer Collier, a state lawmaker who lives in Bayou La Batre, said he has concern that stress disorders will beset the area for years to come.

“I’ve had half a dozen people come to me in the last three days. They can’t pay the power bill,” Collier said last week. “I’ve seen fear in their eyes.”

The Rev. Bill Nguyen, the priest at St. Margaret Catholic Church in the Bayou, said attendance remains steady at weekly services, but collections have been down, and people have stopped in looking for help, he said, to pay utility bills and buy groceries.

“I know right now there are anxieties,” Nguyen said. “When the oyster shops close, it adds a lot of stress.”

More than 230 families received about 10,000 pounds of food at a recent giveaway held at the church.

On the other side of Mobile Bay, another pastor, Alan McBride at Orange Beach United Methodist, said, “What I have observed over the last four to five weeks is that there’s greater anger and great frustration being expressed.”

He said, “Kind of concurrent with Rookie Kruse’s suicide, it seemed to me we really needed to provide some local support.”

The Orange Beach church plans to offer free support services to those who may need someone to talk to. There are two ministers and 11 lay ministers available to listen, even in the evenings.

“We want to provide an easily available outlet for people to vent,” McBride said. “Share with them hope; approach it from that perspective. Someone they can talk to and trust in a confidential setting.”

More information is available at the church, 251-981-6751.

State and local mental health officials are working to create programs in Mobile and Baldwin counties to offer further counseling services. They hope to be able to send teams door-to-door in the areas most affected by the oil spill.

Beginning Wednesday, Parker said, counselors from AltaPointe will be available daily at the Bayou La Batre Community Center until there is no longer a need. There will also be representatives from the American Red Cross and Catholic Social Services, among others, she said.

Picou likened the situation to a marathon.

“We have potentially millions of people who will be affected and hundreds of communities,” he said Friday. “We’re in day 67. We had the first suicide in Alaska four years after the spill.”

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