Gulf Coast community organizations filling in response gaps

By Oxfam

Gulf Coast – With their livelihoods in true jeopardy, community leaders across the Gulf Coast are mobilizing to respond to the oil spill disaster and give political voice to the people that stand to lose the most.

“You’ve got fishermen that are losing their livelihoods, that can’t make their payments. There are men in tears in the food stamp lines because the fishing areas are already closed. We’ve got to be helping those men. There’s got to be more government oversight of what BP is doing to make sure the communities’ interests are protected,” said Rev. Tyronne Edwards, director of Zion Travelers Cooperative Center in Phoenix, LA.

Rev. Edwards and others are extremely concerned about how businesses will sustain themselves in the short and long term. Zion Travelers is working closely with fishermen who need to keep safe from toxins as they support the oil cleanup. Zion is also advocating for employing as many local and small business owners to assist in the recovery process as possible. And, while coastal organizations know the impact will be significant, no one knows yet just how big it will be – but are bracing for the worst.

“I can’t fathom the impact this is going to have, I can’t begin to imagine the impact on the fishing industry,” said Courtney Howell, Director of Bayou Grace Community Services in Chauvin, LA. “This is much larger than the aftermath of the hurricanes.”

Oxfam America has been working in these communities since the first days after Hurricane Katrina.  According to a recent Oxfam study, Exposed , many of these communities are among the most vulnerable regions of the country, with the least ability to respond to disasters, and few avenues to make their voice heard in the recovery process. It is imperative that residents on the coast are heard now and throughout the recovery process.

“For the second time in less than five years, Oxfam’s friends and partners on the coast are facing monumental disasters from forces beyond their control. Oxfam will do all it can to ensure that the most vulnerable populations in the region will be heard and attended to as the disaster and recovery process unfold,” Oxfam America President Raymond Offenheiser said. 

For the people who depend on the coastal waters for a living, the oil spill may have serious consequences for more than a decade. As the oil spill now reaches land, the closure of oyster beds (already started) may expand. The shrimp harvest, which generates about $962 million in annual retail sales, is also in jeopardy. Recreational fishing, too, is a major source of income for the economy generating about $1 billion in retail sales a year in the state. Nearly eight thousand jobs rely on saltwater sport fishing which produces about $757 million in annual economic impact in Louisiana, while sustaining more than 7,700 jobs. In addition, secondary jobs in restaurants, services, hospitality and tourism all depend on clean beaches and environmental bounty.

Community organizations like Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing, (BISCO) Bayou Grace Community Services, Zion Travelers Cooperative Center, and the Steps Coalition are responding on numerous fronts, including environmental impact, coastal erosion, mental health needs, hazardous materials, livelihoods and information sharing. As they did after Hurricane Katrina, these community groups are filling crucial gaps between the official response from state, federal and BP officials and needs on the ground.

“This oil drilling disaster only reinforces our passion for our work to address the environmental, social and economic issues of our coast, our issues of coastal land loss and the dangers created when we see industrial and commercial interests creating long term negative impacts in our own community and neighboring communities along the coast,” said BISCO Executive Director Sharon Gauthe.

In coastal Mississippi, the Steps Coalition is also rededicating itself to recovery, gathering member organizations to determine needs and response strategies.

“The Steps coalition is spearheading efforts to coordinate advocates’ work in response to the BP oil spill and is partnering with local organizations to create forums where community residents can voice their concerns and fears,” said Steps Coalition director Roberta Avila.

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