In Plaquemines Parish, “residents live with disasters,” Richard A. Blink Jr. said Friday, the two-year anniversary of the BP oil spill.
But as Blink and others pointed out, some residents live with disaster better than others, and indeed, the oil disaster affected residents differently.
Blink, a small-business owner, was among those attending the release of a report that examines the effects of the spill on small businesses in the tightly knit parish, where a flood of recovery money divided neighbors and friends into “spillionaires” and those who continue to struggle.
The report compiles and analyzes interviews with more than 50 small-business owners, many of whom were passed by in the financial windfall of the oil cleanup. The report is the product of The Urban Conservancy and is called “My Heart Is Tied Up in This Place: Impacts of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on Plaquemines Parish’s Local Businesses.”
“The difficult part is showing how the population is indirectly affected, how a brief and scant influx of money alienates neighbors and friends,” said Dana Eness, the executive director of The Urban Conservancy.
She was joined by parish officials, citizens and researchers at the Southeast Louisiana Fisheries Assistance Center Regions Bank building in Belle Chasse.
The report stems from an effort begun in 2007, before “Deepwater Horizon” or “Macondo” were household names in Southeast Louisiana.
Eness initially sought to establish community ties within the parish to help fortify local business and attract investment following the destruction caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The effort took on new urgency in the wake of the nation’s worst oil spill and subsequent clean-up effort in 2010.
She said the report shows that many independent businesses – hardware stores, retailers, restaurants and groceries – continue to show signs of an incomplete recovery.
Among residents, the cleanup and restoration effort has been met with mixed results. Many, such as Blink, say irreparable harm was done by not exhausting local knowledge of waterways, as well as trained, effective manpower.
“Our police and fire departments are arguably the best hurricane recovery agencies along the coast – their response has become surgical,” he said.
But as oil saturated the coast and its precious bayous, BP enlisted only select boat owners while dismissing others local citizens eager to protect their livelihoods, he said.
But some business owners met the relief effort warmly.
“There were a thousand different companies down here,” the report quotes one convenience store owner as saying.
And they came with money to spend, particularly on alcohol, soft drinks and tobacco, the owner pointed out: “I went from selling one carton of Newport cigarettes per month to 12 per week.”
This influx was short-lived and failed to reach all sectors of the market, but it did bring in significant money.
Those business owners whose services were not in such demand had two options: file a claim, or don’t.
Though it might seem obvious that suffering businesses should apply for relief, many didn’t out of fear of being blackballed by the oil industry, the report said.
“Either you get the business and you don’t make the claim or vice versa,” one person interviewed for the report said.
“The industry is powerful and well-connected,” added another. “They reward businesses that treat them favorably and punish those who do not.”
The report does not focus solely on businesses, but rather works to illustrate ways in which the community is still grappling with recovery.
The report describes its findings as “largely consistent with previous research of local businesses in a post-disaster context.”
However, given Plaquemines unique geography, traditional solutions cannot be applied, it said.
Rather, customized solutions, unique and accommodating of local residents and businesses, are required for the prolonged recovery of the parish, it contends.
Eness said she hopes that this is only the beginning of a discussion between businesses, big and small, in an attempt to bolster the coastline and coastal communities.