Oil spill update from the field: One Louisiana town prays for God to save them from oil and hurricanes

Folks from Buras, Louisiana gather beside three giant metal crosses on the side of the highway to pray for God to save them from the black wave. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)

Buras, Louisiana, June 3
On the side of the highway next to a trio of giant metal crosses, a man is preaching.

“We’re not here to twist God’s arm,” cries Pastor Max Latham, before a tiny gathering of the faithful. “We’re here to ask God for a miracle.”

It is the first day of hurricane season and the people of Buras are facing it like they have done for the past decade, with an outdoor prayer session. Hurricane Katrina buried Buras under a 20 foot wall of water and even five years later, evidence of the storm’s wrath is everywhere. Cracked concrete rectangles fringed by weeds mark spots where homes once stood and bakeries, pharmacies and gas stations still stand derelict, windows shattered, roofs collapsed, sun light streaking into empty stores. More than a third of the populace never returned; Pastor Max’s congregation dwindled from sixty five to three. Those who came back painstakingly rebuilt churches and homes and began again. Now they face a new threat, the oil.

“Katrina came around and took our homes, but it didn’t take our culture, it didn’t take our jobs,” says Benny Puckett, right hand man to the vociferous Plaquemines Parish President, Billy Nungesser. “What we’re facing here has the potential to take a lifestyle.”

Hurricane season on the Gulf lasts a sultry six months, from June 1 to November 30 and according to both NOAA and a team of Colorado State forecasters an abnormally warm tropical Atlantic and the absence of El Nino, which generates wind shear that stymies storm development, means this year will be extremely active. NOAA predicts as many as seven major hurricanes (the average is 2.3). The Colorado State researchers have pegged the odds that a major storm, one roughly the size of Katrina or larger, will slam somewhere along the Gulf Coast at 50 percent. Since the coast here is flat as a pancake, storms can send the sea surging inland as far as 20 miles, and with oil still spewing locals fear the possibility of what has become known ominously as the black wave.

“One thing we want to stress,” says Daniel Brown, a senior hurricane specialist with the National Hurricane Center, “is that regardless of exact forecast numbers, it only takes one hurricane to hit your area for it to be a bad year.”

South Florida saw the reality of that statement in 1992, a year of few storms but one monster, Andrew. In 1999, Buras residents strung their shrimp boats across the Mississippi and prayed for God to stave off storms. It appears that He did, one nailed New Orleans but missed them entirely. They continued the tradition but changed the venue. One might assume their prayers failed the year Katrina hit, but not Pastor Max. “It was bad,” he says, “but if we hadn’t prayed, no telling how bad it could have been.”

As the sun sets on the small assembly gathered at the three crosses, a Baptist preacher from Boothville named Theodore Turner shares a psalm then dives into a fiery speech. 

 “There are reporters, prognosticators, instigators, that have concluded that Plaquemines Parish is gone,” he roars. “I don’t care how black the water gets; God can touch it and make it pure.”

A pickup on the highway honks. Pastor Max gives the closing remarks. He is not as optimistic as Pastor Theodore.

“Even worse than a hurricane, this has the potential of destroying a way of life,” he says. “You can rebuild your house, but no one has the faith to believe that you can rebuild the marshes.”

Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine

Pastor Max Latham beside his church. The congregation dwindled from 65 to 3 after Hurricane Katrina. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)

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