Image: Shrimp boat
Charlie Riedel  /  AP
A shrimp boat motors through a ribbon of oil during cleanup operations in the Gulf of Mexico off the mouth of the Mississippi River south of Venice, La.
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updated 5/28/2010 10:11:50 AM ET 2010-05-28T14:11:50

Floyd Robin stands on his dock, next to his shrimp boat, the "Lady Bea," and looks out over Barataria Bayou. "The oil is about five miles from here . . . today," Robin says. "It has crept up a mile since the beginning of the week. Right now we have a north wind that is keeping it from getting closer. We haven't seen any oil here yet, not even any sheen. I pray that we don't."

One collective prayer along the Gulf Coast seems to have been answered Thursday. It appeared that BP's "top kill" technique was having some early success in plugging the Deepwater Horizon oil leak. If the cap does hold, after 37 days of unchecked spillage, it will be welcome news indeed. But it still leaves south Louisianans facing both an environmental disaster of epic proportions and dire circumstances for shrimpers like Robin.

The hardy 70-year-old "just spent $4,000 sanding and painting my boat, and fiber-glassing the deck," but has earned nothing to offset these expenses. In late April, before the oil came close, area shrimpers were allowed to trawl for a few days, well before the season would normally open. It was hoped that this would let them make at least a little money before the fishing grounds were inevitably closed.

"But at that point," Robin says, "the shrimp were too small. Now they're at marketable size, but we can't go catch them.

"This is what I do," Robin continues. "I've been shrimping all my life. I think this is worse than Katrina. There was a lot of debris in the water after Katrina, and sometimes we would tear our nets, but that only lasted a few months, and we could still trawl.

"We have had little oil spills before, but they were a pimple compared to this. If the oil gets in here, the wildlife will not come back in my lifetime. This is like a death. I was hoping to trawl until I'm 80 years old, end my life happy and contented, finish my days right here on the bayou, in my community, doing what I love to do. I don't want to fall into a depression, but it's close."

Robin's community, Jean Lafitte, is only a 45-minute drive south of downtown New Orleans, but it has the feel of a small, rural, town. Some residents still speak Cajun French, although all are perfectly fluent in English. The fact that many commercial fisherman live in such communities, which lack the clout of big urban governments, can make it much harder for them to fight corporate giants such as BP. With the oil spill, this fight is not only for their livelihoods, but also for their rich culture.

Dr. Barry Ancelet – an eminent folklorist, linguist, and Cajun culture scholar at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette – notes that "BP, Trans Ocean and Halliburton officials, along with governmental agents, are all rightly concerned about the environmental catastrophe. But they seem less aware of and concerned with the cultural and social impact of the spill. The way of life of shrimpers and oystermen and others who depend on the ecology of the coastal marshes could be adversely affected for a whole generation or more. Consider the possible long-term effects of the signs seen recently in New York restaurants: 'We do not serve Louisiana seafood.'

"It is indeed likely," says Ancelet, "that if this pollution was washing ashore in Florida, the Carolinas, all the way up the East coast to Maine, or along the California coast, the outcry would be thunderous and the reaction more intense. Louisiana has long been considered and treated as a colony."

Ancelet goes on to mention the movie "Thunder Bay,'" from 1953, with Jimmy Stewart. "Stewart plays the role of a slick-talking Anglo-American oil man who eventually brings in the first offshore oil well in the Gulf. The film is full of conflict between the 'backward Cajuns' and the clever oilmen. The oil men are obviously ramming the benefits of their new industry down the ungrateful throats of the natives who are made to appear silly over their concerns about the industry's effects on the environment. The movie also features the requisite gusher scene, the ubiquitous cinematic confirmation of the industry's success. In this case, the gusher is pouring oil into the gulf while the rig's crew members dance in jubilation over their good fortune. No one seems concerned or even aware of the pollution that is occurring."

Nearly 50 years later, some contemporary media stereotypes still reflect this semi-colonial status and reinforce it with condescending coverage. "A lot of reporters," Floyd Robin says, "when they write about a shrimper, they find a guy who's missing most of his teeth and uses lots of four-letter words. The worst-looking, sloppiest guy they can get." Robin's boat and home are both spotless, and his impeccably manicured lawn suggests a putting green at a top-tier golf course.

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Like many Cajun people, Robin and his wife of 50 years, Beatrice, are devout Catholics. Religious items and iconography are amply evident in both their house and yard. Perhaps the most telling of these is a wooden, folk-art depiction of a crucifix superimposed upon a ship's wheel and a boat anchor. "God always has a plan," Beatrice Robin says. "What His plan is with this, we don't know. We'll just have to wait and see."

On the earthly plane, meanwhile, Floyd Robin complains that a proposed 80-mile-long levee to protect the marshland from the oil probably won't be built.

"That six-foot-high levee that Gov. Jindal and them are proposing now would work, but they can't get a permit for it" from the Coast Guard. "That levee would wash away eventually, but for now it would hold the oil in the sand 'til you could go pick it up with a bulldozer. You can't pick up oil in this marsh. But BP doesn't care. Now supposing I just went and dumped a bunch of water in their oil?

"President Obama," he continues, "is always saying 'Yes we can, yes we will, we're going to get this resolved as soon as possible, blah blah blah' – but then that's as far as it goes." Robin then refers to the Randy Newman song, "Louisiana 1927," which attained the stature of an anthem during the post-Katrina era. "The guy who wrote that song, he had it right: 'They're trying to wash us away.'"

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