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

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010; A01

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."

Last year, he won first place in the children's fishing competition at the rodeo. This year, there would be no vying for the biggest catch on the oil-tainted water, no bragging about the ones that got away. For the first time that anyone could remember, a rodeo dedicated to a fish served up no seafood. Instead, there were white beans and rice and a gumbo-like dish.

Mary Jackson cries when she thinks about what her grandson has lost, how last week he took his last swim in the ocean for a while, how he caught his last fish until who knows when. On his baseball cap is a two-word promise that she can no longer count on as certain: "Future Fisherman."

"He would be the fifth generation," she said.

On Grand Isle's seven miles of beach, there is no smell of oil permeating from the sand or black globs every few steps. But if one looks closely at the puddles formed near the shoreline, reflections stare back through an oily sheen. And the small pebble-like formations on the sand are not rocks; they are tar balls that are soft and sticky to the touch.

All along the island are signs telling visitors that the beach is closed. Over the weekend, the only people seen soaking in the sun were government crews erecting bright orange booms, rescue workers searching for distressed animals, and busloads of hired hands carrying rakes and shovels to clean the sand.

Not looking for souvenirs

At a souvenir shop in the middle of the afternoon, Penny Besson sat reading a SpongeBob book to her grandchildren, ages 2 and 5. The store was quiet except for the soft clanking of shells on wind chimes. A rumble of trucks loaded with booms passed outside the window, tugging 5-year-old Zaine's attention away.

"That's for the oil," Besson told him. "That's what they put in the water to stop the oil."

The cleanup crews and researchers are keeping the restaurants relatively busy but aren't looking to buy souvenirs: shell-studded frames, salt and pepper shakers shaped like crabs, Christmas ornaments showing Santa on a dolphin.

"Look at it, it's empty," Besson said of the store. "This should be our busiest time."

At the community garage sale, Betty Robert and her daughter Kay Lefort managed to sell the bread pudding and fudge quickly. But by noon, they still had a table topped with bags of cookies, and it seemed the number of booths outnumbered potential customers.

On the table, next to bags of dried shrimp and cookies shaped like baseball mitts, was a new addition Lefort created this year: blue Louisiana-shaped cookies with the message "Save our Coast" in green icing.

"I wanted to do some tar ball cookies," Lefort said, "or do some cookies with the BP emblem with a slash through them."

If the oil giant had never made a mess of the area, if the spill had never washed ashore closing beaches indefinitely, if the top kill hadn't failed, Lefort's children would have spent the day playing on the sand. They would have come home to a feast of boiled crab and shrimp.

"Look at that sign," Robert said. She pointed to a marquee that flashed the message: Beach Closed. Enjoy the Island. "Now if that ain't contradictory."

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