Holiday weekend is ominous sign of hard times to come for Louisiana beach town

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010

GRAND ISLE, LA. -- If the rig had never blown, if the oil had never spewed, if the roads of Grand Isle had never given way to an endless stream of military vehicles, Mary Jackson would have spent Memorial Day weekend fishing with her 3-year-old grandson, a boy who wakes up in the morning talking about the water.

Penny and Frank Besson would have added up more than $800 in sales each night at their souvenir shop, instead of $26.23 one night and $48 another.

Betty Robert would have been so busy at a community garage sale pushing her daughter's baked goods that she wouldn't have had time to yell at a passing government truck: "Suck it up! Sop it up! Mop it up! Whatever you have to do!"

For many in this small Louisiana beach town, this Memorial Day weekend will be remembered less for what was seen, than for what was not. For a moment, there was a sliver of hope that there would be reason to celebrate, that the top kill would plug the hole that was eating away at the economy and culture. But that didn't happen. So the weekend that normally kicks off a summer of celebration and profit became an ominous sign of hard times to come.

The tourists, who on Memorial weekends past have pushed the town's population from about 1,500 to about 10,000, did not come. The hotels and rentals perched on stilts were filled with researchers, members of the military and journalists. The beach was void of swimsuit-clad families toting ice chests and umbrellas. Instead, it was filled with government workers in uniforms and cleanup crews in white jumpsuits and rubber boots. And the Speckled Trout Rodeo, usually an intense three-day fishing competition, was reduced to a single, fishless night.

"Normally, you'd see the kids all standing in line with their fish," waiting to have them weighed, said Buggy Vegas, who owns Bridge Side Marina, which threw the rodeo. "You'd be hearing fish stories -- 'My kid caught this' or 'I went to my usual spot' or 'You took my spot.' You don't hear that."

He used to get up by 4 a.m., excited to get to the marina where fishermen would be buying bait and breakfast. Now, he said, he lumbers in with little motivation hours later to find a few oil-spill workers buying coffee and pastries.

"Everybody feels alone," he said of the town's residents. "We were used to working together every day, and then it just stopped."

'We got a pool at home'

Craig Hebert, 35, was at the counter nearby listening as Vegas talked. He and his family live in New Iberia but would normally stay on the island until September. They planned to leave the next day. "The kids want to go home," Hebert said. What's the point of staying if they can't get in the water? "We got a pool at home," he said.

In an area where everyone seems to work more than one job -- a real estate agent is also a security guard and a pastor -- the beach is not just a recreational place. It's part of a collective identity. An aisle at the grocery store offers life vests, anchors and filet knives, both electric and with wood handles. Homes are named like boats with signs out front reading "Makin' Waves" and "Holy Mackerel." A woman wears a necklace with a dangling silver trout charm one day and one with a red fish another.

Bobby Jackson tugged at his grandfather's hand shortly after they arrived at the Speckled Trout Rodeo. He wanted to see the boats. But only a few lingered at the marina that day.

"He loves fishing," Mary Jackson, 58, said of her grandson. "The first thing he says when he wakes up is I want to go fishing."

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