By Erica Christoffer, Multimedia Web Producer, REALTOR® Magazine
One of the most memorable cities I visited during my trip to the Gulf Coast last week was Grand Isle, La. The oil is more physically present here than other city in the Gulf that I saw. Here’s an excerpt from my travels on Thursday, June 17…
Grand Isle beach facing southeast.
Not long after my arrival on Grand Isle, I get my first look at the beach—seven miles closed off from swimming, fishing, and sunbathing. Cleanup workers ride their ATVs, seemingly rushing from one clean-up checkpoint to another. Coast Guard and National Guard vehicles are parked near beach entry points. Not a civilian in sight.
A “sandboni,” normally used to smooth out beaches after heavy use (like a Zamboni does for ice rinks) slowly rolls down the beach, skimming oil from the sand. It’s quiet. Then I see something in the water. It’s the fin of a dolphin swimming by. My heart sinks. Somehow I feel guilty.
I meet up with Dustin Cheramie, 30, a local fisherman and home builder from Cut Off, La. Business was good before the oil spill, he says. He started his own fishing company when he was 17, which has grown to include a fleet of three boats and a crew of 15. But since the oil spill, the fishing business has been at a standstill. He and his crew are now working for BP as part of the contract cleanup effort, picking up dirty boom and laying clean boom to soak up more oil. “I’m glad I’m making money, but I’m not making as much as I was fishing,” Cheramie says.
Grand Isle home under construction by Torres and Cheramie.
Cheramie is also still involved in home construction, a business he learned from his father. In the last few years, he started purchasing lots on Grand Isle with his friend, Gerald “Peanut” Torres, and building homes (commonly referred to as “camps” by the locals). Investors flocked to the island after Hurricane Katrina because the area wasn’t hit nearly as bad as other nearby communities. Cheramie finished six homes last year, which he sold to second-home buyers and investors. He and Torres currently have two other homes under construction that they started just before the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig blowout and sinking. “Before the oil came, I had a buyer lined up to buy that home you’re standing in,” Torres says to me via cell phone as Cheramie gives me a tour of one of the homes. “They backed out because of the oil spill.”
But all is not lost. In post-oil spill Grand Isle, staffing firms are interested in renting or buying homes where they can house cleanup workers, Chermaie says. All the vacation rentals that vacationers canceled are now occupied by BP, contractors, and media.
Cheramie and I board his boat at the residential water canal just outside the unfinished house. He points to the blackened stains on the wood along the side of the canal. “That’s oil,” he says. I notice an oily brown ring marking the waterline along the outside of his vessel, and I see brown footprints and drips throughout the inside of the boat. His crew had the boat out earlier working on the cleanup. “I need to take this in for a wash tonight,” he says.
Boat carrying soiled boom near Grand Isle.
We head out about a half mile. It’s open water, slightly crowded with fishing boats turned boom-layers. Many ships are carrying in soiled boom to be changed out. The oil is so thick in this region that the absorbent boom only lasts about an hour, Cheramie says. “Take a picture of that,” he says, pointing to a huge boat carrying an equally huge amount of dirty boom, and I snap a few shots as we speed forward to the nearby barrier islands. He stops the boat just shy of a wall of bamboo sticks that are sticking out of the water, holding boom in place. My nose is overwhelmed. I turn to Cheramie, “Is that the boat or is that the oil?,” I ask. “It’s the oil,” he matter-of-factly replies. Descriptions I had been hearing about the smell from the water are affirmed.
Boom washes up on barrier islands near Grand Isle.
As I snap pictures of oily boom and oily islands, Cheramie talks about how everything has changed. How he can’t head out on his boat just for fun anymore. He used to climb on his boat with his fishing pole to escape the world for a bit. Now, when things are the toughest they’ve ever been, he can’t do that, he says. I distract him. “Let me take your picture,” I say. He smiles.
Cheramie says he’s thinking about leaving. Rumors have it that cleanup will take two years. But he thinks it will take a lot longer. “I don’t want to leave. This is my home. But if the fishing doesn’t come back …” His thoughts drifts off. “Where would you go?” I ask. “That’s what I’ve been thinking about. I’d go north, maybe,” he replies. “It would have to be far away from here, otherwise everything would remind me of this place and how much I’d miss it. If I can’t be here, I have to go far away.”
Watch for my upcoming posts on Gulfport, Miss., an oyster and seafood processing facility, and how the situation is unfolding daily in the Gulf.