Inside a cool, shaded old plantation house in St. Bernard, Louisiana, we’re all breathing in our favorite color and blowing out gray smoke.
This relaxation exercise is brought to a roomful of women by the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit founded in 2006 to provide rebuilding services to Katrina-ravaged St. Bernard Parish as well as offer “psychological rebuilding” through its wellness and mental-health center. Since the oil spill started, the organization has been looking to vastly expand its services to meet the area’s latest mental-health crisis: the unrelenting depression falling on families living and working on the Gulf Coast. Everyone here except the three clinic workers and me is a fisherman’s wife.
Michelle, the clinical coordinator running this early-morning support group, asks the five wives who have come what the St. Bernard Project can do to help them.
“I don’t know, because I don’t know what’s gonna happen.”
“We need work. For the wives.”
“Whatever happens needs child care. If wives are gonna start workin’, someone has to take care of the kids. A lot of fishermen have kids.”
“The biggest issue is that our situation is unknown,” a woman named Tammy says.* She is tough and broad and has a soothing husk in her voice like phone sex or five packs of cigarettes. Tammy is dressed in white and is eight months pregnant. I hope never to get in a bar fight with her. “They haven’t stopped the oil, huh? This is like a time bomb. You can’t prepare for what you don’t know. But I can tell you right now that we need toilet paper.”
The claims checks BP is supposed to be sending are eight days late, which means everyone’s out of cash for necessities. The day before, cars lined up and down the nearby highway for a 38,000-pound food giveaway. This morning, like every morning, there was a line outside a church center in New Orleans East, in a part of town where stray dogs scavenge trashy lots and industry makes the air smell like burning toast. There, and at four other locations around Southern Louisiana once a week, Catholic Charities is giving out $100 grocery vouchers. Though they don’t open until nine, sometimes it takes being at the doors by four in the morning, when it’s somehow already hot, to get one, because they always run out. But you can’t buy toilet paper with the vouchers—food only.
I remember that about the $75 grocery vouchers the Red Cross gave us as Katrina evacuees in 2005. The checkout clerk at a grocery store in Ohio wouldn’t let me buy vitamins, and boy was I mad about that. Had I not already cried myself out at the Gap looking at a shirt that I already owned but might be underwater back home, I would have pitched a sobby fit in Giant Eagle.
“They won’t even let you buy Dawn,” Brenda complains. It’s difficult to describe Brenda without employing the phrase “fiery redhead.” In January, she moved out of the 10-by-16-foot FEMA trailer she’d been living in with four kids and a husband and cats and dogs. In the new house, she can’t stop the kids from sleeping in her bed, because they got used to doing it, out of necessity, for so long. She thinks almost everything, including the following statement, is funny: “I mean, Dawn is related to food.”
“So is toilet paper,” Tammy says, and everyone thinks that’s funny, too.
“You could get food with food stamps, but ain’t no way to get toiletries.”
“That’s why we need them checks. We never got our second check.”
“I heard on TV that BP spent $2 billion on the spill.”
“Maybe in boom. It’s not comin’ in money.”
“The money goes through local authorities and they stuff it in their pockets. They gettin’ the money and it’s supposed to come to us and it just gets stuck there.”
“We got our first check for the wrong amount and we went to tell them and they said we had to bring in all this paperwork, then we gotta wait two weeks for them to fix the check.”
In the meantime, the women’s husbands are working for BP, doing cleanup. Boat captains make $36 an hour, $25 for deckhands, but BP’s capping their wages at $200 a day. All around, it’s far less than the husbands usually make in June. And there’s a lottery for work. Those people who get drawn seven days a week? It’s rigged, the women say. There are cliques.
Young, fresh-faced Julie with the toddler on her lap doesn’t want her husband doing cleanup anyhow. She tells him to stop doing it because it’s dangerous. He says, “How do you want me to feed you?” She says, “How are we gonna eat when we’re dead from chemical contamination you’re bringing into the house?” He says, “We’ll live on the check.”
At this point in Julie’s re-creation of this daily fight, everyone yells, “But we’re not getting the check!“
“Okay,” Michelle says calmly. Soon she will admit that she doesn’t watch news about Louisiana anymore. She stopped watching it after Katrina. All it does is upset her. When she describes this to us, her body will give away how visceral her response is; she can’t talk about the glimpses she’s caught of the oil well gushing away, that live underwater feed in the corner of CNN’s coverage, without cringing and wincing. But right now, she asks the fishermen’s wives how they’re feeling.
“Mad! I’m mad! At BP, at nobody has their shit together to take care of all this oil!”
“I’m not depressed; I’m angry.”
And the men? How are they dealing with their own anger?
“My husband’s talking about finding BP CEOs and hurting them, even if he has to go to prison forever. He’s not thinking clearly. The oil spill has completely consumed him.”
“They can’t smoke pot anymore. It’s just a part of the culture, all the fishermen do it, but now they have to take drug tests to get the cleanup work. So now they goin’ drinkin’.”
“My husband’s goin’ drinkin’. My husband comes home and screams at me. The food’s not good enough, the floors aren’t clean enough. That’s why I’m here, for him to take it out on me.”
In next-door Plaquemines Parish, 11 domestic violence calls came in on one recent weekend, compared with 3 on a typical weekend. Cathy Butler, the woman who takes the calls, isn’t ready to attribute the spike entirely to the oil spill; it’s a hundred degrees outside, after all, and calls always increase a bit in the summer. The mayor of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, says they’ve had 320 percent more incidents of domestic violence since the spill. Whatever the cause, Butler is sure it’s gonna get worse soon. “The more people are out of work, the more trouble we’re gonna have,” she says. “Plaquemines Community CARE is offering help now, but we’re gonna need some more counselors. In the coming months, I’m gonna see a definite increase.” She says she is also seeing an increase in child abuse calls.
Michelle tries to offer some perspective to the women by explaining that their husbands’ anger is just a reaction against helplessness. He can’t fix this, but he can fight. That’s why we need to breathe to learn to be calm when we’re awake. We need to accept surrender in the situation. If we can keep ourselves grounded, it helps the other person to ground themselves. That’s one reason why the St. Bernard Project is reaching out to the fishermen’s wives—to spread some of the grounding back to guys who aren’t really therapy types. As Margaret Dubuisson of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, which has recently added 17 case managers and crisis counselors to its staff, says, “They’re not the kind of people who think, when trouble comes along, ‘Oh, I need a shrink.'”
Soon after this session, we’ll hear about an Alabama charter boat captain shooting himself in the head on board his vessel, which hadn’t seen much business lately aside from doing cleanup work for BP. “He had been quite despondent about the oil crisis,” said a coroner. One of his deckhands told the Washington Post that many more fishermen share his boss’ despair: “It’s just setting in with ’em, you know; reality’s kicking in. And there’s a lot of people that aren’t as happy as they used to be.”
Everyone in the plantation house practices breathing in—one, two, three, four, five, six—holding for a second with abdomens, not just upper chests, full of oxygen, exhaling through the mouth for six counts more. Try to make it a game with kids, Michelle says. Have them visualize inhaling their favorite color, exhaling smoke with a hiss like a snake. The sound also lets you know they’re really doing it, really practicing stress relief. Julie says her daughter can’t go into the fish section in Wal-Mart anymore. When she sees it, she just starts crying.
“It’s disappointing when you realize you’re not as resilient as you thought you was,” says a woman in a pink T-shirt. Her name is Donna, and she’s ropy, a tight and wiry fortysomething with short dark hair. Once she starts talking, she can’t stop spewing distress. “Everyone’s saying this knocked us on our knees? We were already on our knees. I used to say I was a Katrina survivor until Gustav, and I realized I hadn’t really survived, because I couldn’t deal with Gustav. And now this.”
The other women let her talk, nodding, though they’ve not been anywhere near so voluble about their own vulnerability. Tammy, for example, has simply announced several times, “I’m a nervous wreck.”
“I feel like if I could just get structure back in my life, I could do it,” Donna continues. “I haven’t had structure since Katrina. I have four kids and a full-time job and they had all their activities and us adults played baseball but I still found a way to do it because I had structure. We functioned like this just fine. I was 40 when Katrina hit. It took me 25 years to get my structure in place, and now I don’t have it. I turn on the washing machine, and come back later, and I’ve run the washing machine without putting the clothes in it. I don’t know what I’m doin’. Every time I start to get structure something else happens. I hope I figure it out before the next disaster. But now I feel like we’ll never get there. We’re not even goin’ in that direction anymore.”
Plaquemines Community CARE hopes to expand its wellness services with satellite offices, but doesn’t have the funding yet. Catholic Charities does its counseling in St. Bernard on the back porch of a rectory. The organization, which is also the only place many workers affected by the spill can go for some help toward rent and utilities, got $1 million from BP for this kind of emergency assistance. The money ran out in less than a month.
The scenery between New Orleans and the St. Bernard Project office is grim, the stuff they show you on disaster tours, neighborhoods that look like Katrina was five weeks ago, not five years ago. The project is still helping the hurricane’s survivors, treating 300 low-income patients suffering post-storm trauma in the last year and a half. They saw a surge of mental-health care need just from local residents watching eerily familiar total devastation in Haiti on the news. They now need two satellite offices and to increase hours; Patron Tequila is currently sponsoring a five-city fundraising train tour.
Joycelyn Heintz, coordinator of the St. Bernard Project’s Mental Health and Wellness Center, is bracing herself for the psychological damage this disaster is going to inflict both on her companions and on her client base. “Once we see the full impact,” she says, “it’s gonna be worse than Katrina.”
*The names of the wives have been changed.