Oil spill update from the field: Racial tensions rise in oil-stricken Grand Isle

Domanick, 11, runs a lemonade stand in Grand Isle. The town has become America's poster child oiled beach community, but beneath the surface racial tensions are simmering. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)

Grand Isle, Louisiana, July 1
Ken Vandenberghe lights a cigarette and shows me his land. There is a dumpster filled with rubble from a Katrina-destroyed home, his pickup parked under a shade tree and his trailer, warped and weathered. Ducks mill about the yard. “We had a simple life back here in the woods, it was real nice,” says Vandenberghe, who wears jean shorts and has a sleeping brunette tattooed on his chest. “Now, I keep my door locked and my gun loaded.”

I visited Grand Isle when oil first came ashore, in late May. More than a month later, the beach is still closed, fishing is still banned and restaurants are still shuttered. The town of 1,500 has become America’s poster child oiled beach community; summer tourists absent, summer itself stolen. But there are visitors; more than 2,000 cleanup workers are staying in homes around town, motels and on large barges called flotels. Some are ex-convicts and at least one is a former sex offender. Many are black. They do a job few would want, shoveling oiled sand in the blazing sun and tend to keep to themselves, but for a weary populace used to the same white faces these outsiders have sparked fear.

Frankie, 9, and Domanick, 11, run a lemonade stand in the parking lot of a sports bar. I ask Frankie how the spill has affected his summer. “Pretty much ruined it,” he says.

His mother Rhea is worried about their health. “They say we can’t go on the beach because it is contaminated but the sand doesn’t stay on the beach,” she says. “It blows everywhere.”

Rhea is also concerned about the cleanup workers. She claims that some are convicts and that several had been squatting in a patch of woods where the kids play. Then she shows me grainy pictures on her iPhone of two cleanup workers with plastic bags walking down the road, apparently stealing things from people’s yards. “We gotta keep an eye on the kids,” says Rhea.

Moments later a pair of black cleanup workers walk by the lemonade stand, one has a bag. “You see!” shouts Domanick. “There are two, right there!”

“Just because they’re black doesn’t mean they’re bad,” says Rhea. “Some of them are nice.”

At the local supermarket, owner Shelly Landry says her store is busy but they’re not making money. “We’re used to grandma and grandpa coming in with 18 grandkids that eat them out of house and home,” she says. “Now you’re talking about workers coming in and maybe buying a loaf of bread, a case of beer, cashing a check, out the door.”

She lifts her dress to reveal a massive green and purple bruise on her thigh. A cleanup worker tried to steal a $1.69 hairbrush, Shelly tackled him.

“Grandma and grandpa make their children behave themselves,” she says. “No one ever taught these children to behave themselves, they think they can have their way with us in this small town.”

Down the road, I ask a woman in a bathing suit drinking a margarita if she has seen anything strange. “You never had to be careful,” she says. “Now we’re watching over our shoulders.”

“I hear they even had some rapes,” she says softly.

Several cleanup workers were sleeping in their cars at the end of this street in Grand Isle until police kicked them out. Rumors of the incident spread, one was that a group of convicts was squatting in the woods. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)

I call BP spokesperson Kim Colburn to check the facts. “I’ve heard of issues in some of the towns when workers were off duty,” he says. “Let me think of the right way to say this…it has been reported there were concerns of strange people in these towns.”

Grand Isle Chief of Police Euris Dubois provides clarity. He says the squatting convicts were really just workers who couldn’t find a room and had slept in their cars (when the police got word they were put in a motel), the suspicious wandering workers had been assigned by BP to pick up litter on the streets (after public complaints police restricted them from doing so on side streets). Another issue developed around a former sex offender cleanup worker who failed to properly notify authorities of his presence, but he has now notified. And the rape, says the chief, referred to a misrepresented incident between a male and a female cleanup worker. “There was no rape,” says Dubois, “not even close.”

But Grand Isle has changed the chief tells me. “When they knock off work a lot of times they go down and walk the streets, that’s our problem, were not used to people walking the streets down here,” he says. “We usually know peoples first names, we know their last names and we know where they live, people aren’t used to this, and they’re getting afraid.”

Is BP hiring ex-convicts? “By no means do they have the short express line to these jobs but we definitely want to get them in the pipelines,” says Lynn Dias-Button, with the Louisiana Workforce Commission. She says she knows of about 125 ex-offenders that have applied for oil cleanup jobs, and at least a handful of those have been placed. I ask if she is worried about these people working in communities like Grand Isle. “In the eyes of the law, ex-offenders have paid their dues and my thinking is, they are a viable member of the labor force,” says Dias-Button. “They have the same rights as anyone else and deserve these jobs.”

At a gas station on the way out of town I find Marcus Hamilton and Johnl Martin. The pair is fresh from New Orleans and looking for work. They are young, cheery and black. Have you had any trouble with the locals I ask. “They been showing love to me,” says Johnl, who has a Lil Wayne shirt and Air Jordan sandals.

“But we got to see how it is,” says Marcus. “We just got here.”

Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine

More than a month after the spill first came ashore in Grand Isle beaches are still closed, fishing is still banned and restaurants are still shuttered. Summer tourists are absent but there are visitors, more than 2,000 cleanup workers. (Photo by Justin Nobel)

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