The brand new fishing pier of this Gulf coast city is virtually deserted, and it is no wonder why. “All you hear on the radio is oil, oil, oil,” sighs Gabe Stockfleth, the pier’s manager.
Southeasterly winds are pushing acre upon acre of oil-darkened water from the BP oil spill toward Waveland, depriving the pier of its usual complement of fishers of red snapper, speckled trout, and wahoo. But the winds are also bringing something else: a sense of déjà vu.
This is the place where hurricane Katrina first touched land in August 2005. Now, it again stands as a literal beachhead for forecasts of catastrophe – a community whose needs are so dire that President Obama has given the mayor a special phone number to reach him directly.
This stretch of coast is one of the more human faces of the environmental disaster looming just offshore. While much of the attention has been focused on the sparsely populated swamplands of southwest Louisiana, where Mr. Obama spoke Sunday, Mississippi’s west coast is home to large estates and churches, water parks and casinos – reminders of the area’s heyday as a vacation destination.
The echo of Katrina is still evident in the rebuilt houses on tall stilts, the “for sale” signs that line the beach, and the shuttered water park. So many malls closed that the only place to buy groceries now is Walmart. The public library still operates out of a makeshift trailer.
What economic recovery that began after Katrina has been brought “to a screeching halt” by skyrocketing insurance rates and the economic downturn, says Mayor John "Tommy" Longo.
Some 40 percent of the population never returned after Katrina. Now, many here worry that the approaching black tide will swallow this town whole.
Friends in high places
“We’re trying to live out the best of the days here,” Ray Crosby, a lifelong resident and one of the few fishing at the pier Monday. “When this oil starts smelling, ain’t nobody gonna want to stay here.”
Federal recovery crews are nine miles offshore laying down containment booms along vulnerable Mississippi and Alabama coastlines. Efforts to burn the oil and the use of 156,000 gallons of dispersants have proved only minimally effective due to a stormy weekend.
“The weather has been our biggest enemy,” says Mayor Longo.
At least Waveland appears to have an influential friend in Obama.
“He knows our people have been through a tremendous amount these last four to five years,” says Longo. “It’s good to know he’s been thinking of us in advance.”
The precursors of the oil spill are already arriving. On Sunday the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association closed all recreational and commercial fishing between the mouth of the Mississippi River and Florida’s Pensacola Bay.
It is a sacrifice many fisherman are unlikely to be able to sustain.
“Fishermen tend to not be rich people. They live week to week,” says Kathy Scott, an administrator for Saint Clare Catholic Church, which is being rebuilt behind its former site, which Katrina flattened.
“If Katrina was big, God is bigger,” reads the church’s sign facing the water.
A town in the balance
Katrina closed schools in Waveland for a time, but it actually made the town younger, in the end. The majority of residents who did not return were seniors. But resident Regina Decrevel wonders what sort future the town can have when it treats its children to this.
“The kids are like, ‘What are we going to do now? We can’t live here,’ ” she says.
Alexander Puffer agrees. A college student, he’s returned home to Waveland to visit.
“I don’t plan on living here,” he says. “The view might be ruined for pretty much indefinitely.”
Some dead animals, such as birds and sea turtles, have already been sighted on Waveland’s shore. Billy Barfield, a retired US Army Ranger who is vacationing in Waveland from his home in Wilmington, N.C., says the setting reminds him too much of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, where his unit spent 40 days helping in the recovery efforts.
He takes a long pause after describing the tasks – washing oil-slicked animals and pulling dead otters, seals, and birds out of the water to bag them.
“I hated it. I really did,” he says. “I’d hate to see it happen here.”