By Ylan Q. Mui
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; C10
GRAND ISLE, LA. -- SpongeBob SquarePants and his friends in Bikini Bottom have a message for the BP contractors, cleanup crews and news media that have descended on this small beach town where oil washes up almost daily.
"Seriously . . . When Can We GO BACK IN THE WATER?" they ask in a painting, staked on the side of the main road, that shows slivers of oil marring the ocean. "Don't Wish you were Here!!"
If you want to know how residents here feel about the oil spill, just read the signs that are posted on seemingly every electrical pole, planted in front yards or hung on the 10-foot stilts that keep houses off the ground in case of flooding. Some are funny, like the six-painting SpongeBob series or the old toilet labeled "BP Headquarters." Some are angry: "Cannot fish or swim. How the hell are we suppose [sic] to feed our kids now?" Others strain for pointed puns, dubbing BP the "Bayou Polluters."
Water is the center of life in Grand Isle, an eight-mile scrap of land standing between Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico that has been hard hit by the oil spill that followed the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig nearly three months ago. BP has dispatched hordes of contractors to the island to clean up the beaches and skim oil off the waters, and the TV cameras have followed. The signs are the handiwork of a feisty population that feels there is little else they can do to keep their culture and industry alive. Many of them cannot work because commercial fishing waters are closed, and they cannot play because the beaches are lined with miles of orange tiger boom to keep the oil at bay.
That means there is plenty of time to brainstorm new signs.
"I had to scream for help some kind of way," said Bobby Pitre, who crafted one of the most jarring displays. "It was like an SOS to the world."
Pitre created statues of a father and his little girl, cowering in fear, wearing oil-stained clothes and gas masks and holding a sign that says "God save us all." He placed them in front of his tattoo parlor, Southern Sting, on a prominent corner on the long road to Grand Isle. Soon, folks were stopping to take photos.
That inspired Pitre and his friend and co-worker, Eric Guidry, to paint murals along the front wall of the shop. They re-created the famous Obama "hope" poster and covered it with question marks and the words, "What Now?" They painted a water tower that now holds oil.
And for a final touch, they turned a mannequin into a bloody torso and attached it to a billboard: "BP took our arms. The government is taking our legs. How will we stand?" Pitre said the sign is a reference to commercial fishing closures and the deepwater drilling moratorium that have decimated the local economy.
"Those are the two things we thrive off of," Pitre said. "We really needed to get people's attention."
Perhaps this is just a region that wears its heart on its billboards. There are all manner of homemade signs along the winding state highways here, some fancier than others. One used blue spray paint on a white sign to warn drivers that "U-turners will be shot at." Another roadside billboard features the graduation photo of a newly minted lawyer with congratulations from assorted family members.
Meanwhile, one sign expresses underlying racial tensions in this majority white community: "An illegal alien in Port Fouchon killed Nicholas," reads a sign in a front yard not far from Grand Isle. The jabs can also be directed inward. Several newer signs take aim at residents who have rented their homes -- they call them camps -- to BP contractors working on the cleanup.
"It's all about greed," say the orange letters scrawled on one wooden board. "Your [sic] not renting your camp, your [sic] destroying your community."
Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle said the signs express the frustration that many residents feel with the pace of the cleanup and the flood of newcomers.
"They're afraid that all these contractors coming in, they don't know nobody," he said. "We're born and raised on this island. We leave our windows open, our keys in the car. The neighbors know each other. . . . It's not bad people, it's just a change of life."
Darleen Taylor is one of the roughly 1,400 full-time residents of Grand Isle, where she was born and raised. The oil spill put her four brothers out of work as fishermen, so they joined BP's cleanup crew.
They try to laugh at their misery, find humor in the horror of the worst environmental disaster of their lives. Which is how they started talking about SpongeBob.
The paintings were actually one of her brothers' idea, Taylor said. They were making a family dinner underneath their house-on-stilts when her brother mentioned it would be funny if Patrick, the starfish who is SpongeBob's sidekick, mistook the oil for chocolate. If she painted it, he promised to put it in his front yard.
That became the first of six oily SpongeBob signs now on roadside display. Taylor used to paint scenes of cypress trees and egrets -- and yes, the occasional SpongeBob -- until Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home five years ago. Her husband half-jokingly said she had post-traumatic stress disorder. But she hasn't painted a single thing until now.
Taylor sets up her brush and canvas on the back porch of her rebuilt home in Grand Isle. It's quiet there, and she can see the marsh and Elmer's Island. The oil is barely visible, she said. Four more SpongeBob paintings are in the works.
"They all wait every weekend to see what's next," Taylor said.