The disaster in the Gulf is a rural one. Is the U.S. ready to sacrifice the homes of some people for the 'smooth sailing' of others?
Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Robert Frost, “The Death of the Hired Man”
You can understand the Gulf Coast BP spill as an ecological disaster, as a business failure, or as an emerging political battleground: plenty of ways to roil the blood. But that’s just part of the story. For those fishing villages and oil service towns in rural Louisiana, what’s happening now out in the water raises more more fundamental questions: Can we hang on? If we leave, can we ever come home again?
After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita I got a call from Lorna Bourg at Southern Mutual Help Association. (Lorna and I had met a few years earlier when our Center for Rural Strategies crew came to New Iberia, Louisiana, to film A Place in the Country, a documentary about rural community development.) Southern Mutual helps poor people get on their feet and own their own homes, and helps all kinds of people along the Louisiana coast take care of their environment.
“You have to help get this story out about what’s going on in these rural communities,” Lorna said. “No one in the rest of the country has any idea.”
And when we got there to start filming, I realized I had no idea. Nothing I had seen or read prepared me. We drove a stretch of fifty miles seeing just one habitable house standing. Hundreds more turned to rubble. Cemeteries flooded out, graves washed open and empty. Churches and commercial buildings twisted, folded, and teetering for lack of walls.
We met families who lived for months under trees or piled ten to a bedroom while FEMA dithered, not able to transport trailers they had in lots a half-day away. We met people who had grown chronically sick from living in stink and mud and mold. And we watched Cajuns, Creoles, tribal members, new American immigrants, and a steady stream of volunteers as they encouraged each other to roll up their sleeves and start all over again. And somehow from the rubble communities began slowly to re-emerge.
Bill Quigley, a human rights attorney and New Orleans law professor we spoke to along the way, says the right to return home is basic for displaced people, whether they are forced to leave because of war, ethnic strife, natural disasters like Katrina and Rita, or a manmade cataclysm like BP.
In an open letter to President Obama, Lorna Bourg says the growing BP tragedy is essentially a rural story. Some of that you can confirm on the map. The imperiled Louisiana marshland and jagged coast comprise 40% of the continental U.S. wetlands, and those waters account for 30% of our daily catch. But there is more to the rural story within this tragedy.
Dandling just above the sprawling crude is the future of hundreds of small towns and villages that have endured for generations, many since before we were a country. Whatever the odds, they’ve sustained themselves, the fisheries, the rookeries, and a uniquely American cultural heritage. And they’ve done all that sustaining in the face of storms, floods, pestilence and worse — but maybe nothing worse or more toxic than what they face today, a spill with the potential to suffocate the ecosystem and chase away the towns.
In this sense “rural” is not empty expanse, or the trees and farms between the cities, or even the place where the rest of us get our supplies of natural resources. Now, “rural” is the test of our sustainability. What must endure? Whose places are we willing to sacrifice for some notion of a greater good and smoother sailing? Who gets to go home again?
Dee Davis is president of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.