Update: 7:00 A.M. EST July 29, 2011 — Last July, small fishing towns up and down the Gulf Coast were reeling from the Deep Horizon oil rig explosion. For a time it seemed the way of life for these communities would change forever. However, things are getting back to normal. One of the hopeful signs is the International Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo, the oldest fishing tournament in the United States, will go on the last weekend in July as it has since 1928. The only year it stopped was in 2010 because of the oil spill. The Rev. Kirby Verret, pastor of Clanton Chapel United Methodist Church, said the shrimp season was good this year, even if the price for shrimp was low. One sad note, the community did lose Marie Antoinette Billiot Dean, 94, who died Sept. 23, 2010. Dean was famous for her palmetto basket weaving, and some of her creations are on display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Verret said “Miss Marie” died sitting in her favorite rocking chair weaving with palmetto fronds.
7:00 A.M. EST July 16, 2010 | DULAC, La. (UMNS)
The Rev. Kirby Verett says the Houma people are deeply tied to the unique ecosystem found in Lousiana’s coastal estuaries. UMNS photos by Mike DuBose.
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Modest wooden houses and mobile homes on pilings tower over bright green lawns on both sides of Highway 57.
Pickup trucks sit in the shade under the houses and shrimp boats gently rock on the bayou that snakes along one side of the two-lane blacktop.
In this small fishing town, Clanton Chapel United Methodist Church has been an anchor through many storms. But the latest disaster—the Deep Horizon oil rig explosion—may be the greatest threat to the faithful people who have lived in and loved this coastal region for hundreds of years.
Clanton Chapel, established in the 1880s, is the only Native American United Methodist congregation in Louisiana. Members of the United Houma Nation have fought back from crippling hurricanes, racism and poverty since the explorer Robert La Salle discovered them in 1682.
Just down the road from the church, Destry Verdin, a lifelong United Methodist and a tribe member, is on his front porch swing with his wife and brother. An electric fan stirs the hot air and a small television punctuates the morning with screaming contestants on “The Price is Right.”
The explosion and massive oil spill happened just as the 2010 shrimp season was getting started. Verdin and many of his neighbors depend on shrimping in the spring and summer for their annual income.
For the past several years, Gulf Coast shrimpers have faced tough competition from foreign imports, bringing the price of domestic shrimp below $2 a pound. However, this year, the price is up to $4 a pound.
“We haven’t seen prices this good for a long while,” Verdin says. “Right now, we would be making a lot more money than we made last year. We have to make all the money we can between the seasons to pay our bills in the winter.”
Verdin worries about the spill reaching the estuaries near Dulac. He also fears the oil spill will create a dead zone in the Gulf that will destroy shrimp, crabs, oysters and fish for years to come. But despite the damage, he doesn’t blame the oil industry.
“They are trying (to clean up the spill),” he says. “We can’t get mad at them; accidents happen.”
Marie Dean, who is nationally recognized for her skill in weaving palmetto fronds into baskets and hats, says she is reluctant to leave her Dulac, La., home during the area's frequent bouts with storms and hurricanes.
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The Rev. Kirby Verett, pastor of Clanton Chapel, understands that sentiment. It is not as easy as deciding between protecting God’s creation and big business, he reasons.
“As one person told me, as bad as this BP spill is, shrimping cannot support this community, and without oil industry jobs, this area would not survive,” Verett says.
“Jesus said the poor will always be with us. But did Jesus believe some people are meant to be poor all their lives? Jesus meant for us to help people out of poverty by education, spiritual uplifting and whatever we can do to help someone help themselves.”
Tied to the water
According to the earliest history, the United Houma Nation has always lived on the east bank of the Mississippi River. They are recognized by the state of Louisiana as a tribe; however, they have waited more than 30 years to be recognized as a federal tribe by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. More than 17,000 live in six parishes in south Louisiana.
The tribe’s history, culture and livelihoods are deeply tied to the water.
Verett points to the rolling fields of tall slender marsh grass. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Among the soft reeds, tiny shrimp, oysters, crabs, fish and more than 700 species of birds, reptiles and mammals are cradled safely in the protective arms of nature’s incubator.
Salt water from the Gulf of Mexico and fresh water from the Mississippi River mix beneath miles-long fingers of dark green grass to provide a safe haven for sea creatures to grow up in before facing their wilder, tougher parent in the open gulf.
The estuaries winding along the coast of Louisiana have faced many enemies over the years. Hurricanes have battered and destroyed the delicate shores while manmade barriers and structures have altered the natural flow of the Mississippi River.
No one wants the oil to make it into the estuaries. But a moratorium on the oil industry will also be a killing blow to the economy, they say.
Weathering strong winds
Located near the coastline of Louisiana, Dulac regularly gets pummeled by hurricanes.
Most of the homes are in some stage of recovering from past storms. United Methodist youth and other volunteer teams come often to work on homes. Verdin’s family is just moving back into their home after living in a FEMA trailer for three years.
Today, a team of young people from Grace Community United Methodist Church in Shreveport, La., is sitting on top of the house, in the blazing sun, replacing the tin roof.
Verdin points to several water stained spots on the ceiling in his living room. When asked what happened, he smiles and says, “hurricanes.” Even with this constant threat, he says there is no place he would rather be. His wife, Rebecca, and brother, Gabe, agree.
“Anywhere you go there could be a flood or a tornado or an earthquake,” Verdin adds. “I have lived here all my life. Dulac is an outdoor thing – if you want fish or shrimp for dinner, you just go out and catch them.”
Oddly enough, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 didn’t really hit Dulac as much as other parts of the state. But a month later, her twisted sister Rita left behind a lot of the damage that people are still recovering from. Gustav and Ike in 2008 added to the destruction.
Ask people which hurricanes were worst, and they all have a different answer. In 2002, Hurricane Lila took out the preschool run by the church. People remember how bad it was in 1984 when Juan destroyed the Dulac Community Center. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew came along and did the same thing.
The 2010 Atlantic hurricane season is forecast to be an active year with some 16 to 18 storms predicted. The first hurricane of 2010, Alex, missed the Louisiana coast, but everyone in Dulac knows that eventually another hurricane will tear their community apart.
People cope. They know how to clean out the mud, lay their family photos in the sun to dry and replace roofs.
No place like home
It will take a mighty big storm to make Marie Dean, 94, leave again.
Her little blue house has been flooded three times. The water stayed a long time the last time. “I raised my family in this house,” she says, speaking in French.
Cleanup workers lay protective boom in an effort to keep oil from the Deepwater Horizon accident from entering Caminada Bay in Grand Isle, La.
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She acknowledges one of her daughters has a nice, elevated house outside of Dulac that would probably weather the storms better.
“It’s nice, but it’s not home,” Dean says. Looking around, she adds, “It takes a lot to leave everything you got.”
Family photos are hung high on the blue paneling of her front room. Among them is a framed certificate from the Smithsonian Institution Office of Folklife Programs. Dean is a master palmetto-leaf weaver who learned the art at the knees of her mother. She also makes dolls from the Spanish moss that drapes most of the trees lining the bayou.
She received the certificate in 1989 in recognition of her “exceptional contributions to the increase and diffusion of knowledge about the cultural traditions which comprise the heritage of our nation and of the world.”
Most days, Dean sits just inside her front door weaving. She can look out the door and see everything happening on the road. She can glance to her right and watch the boats go by on the bayou.
Verett says Dean is tough and he tells a story to back up his claim.
A few years ago, when she was 88, she wanted a fresh orange from the tree in her backyard. She climbed up on a ladder, fell and broke her knee. Instead of calling for help, she crawled back into her home. When the pain was too much, she did have to go to the hospital and have surgery.
She points to the long scar, “I didn’t want anyone to know I fell,” she explains, shrugging her shoulder.
‘Don’t look back’
Growing up in nearby DuLarge, Verrett learned about racism early in life.
“We (Indians) knew our bounds. That was the way life was,” Verett says of attitudes when he was growing up. “If you went into Houma, you couldn’t walk on the main street or sit in movie houses; you couldn’t vote. I mean people would flat out tell you, you can’t come in here.”
He remembers once as a young boy his family was targeted by an angry crowd as his parents drove past a white high school when a football game was just letting out.
“People recognized my parents to be Indian and they started throwing beer bottles at the car,” he says.
“God calls me to action,” said the 5-foot-five, 62-year-old, gray-haired man who speaks with a distinct Cajun French accent. Like the storms that frequently roll across his homeland, he is always moving and almost never stops talking.
“Seems to me that my revelations in life all have to do with disaster and good coming out of it,” he says, laughing.
Verett knows his community is hurting. Most folks are shrimpers and fishers, work in a seafood-related business or work for the oil industry.
Many of the shrimpers like Verdin are being paid by British Petroleum to use their boats to help in the cleanup efforts. The bright blue and green “skimming” nets are being replaced temporarily by orange and yellow booms that surround and soak up the oil.
Verett was happy to hear British Petroleum wanted access to the large, centralized sewer system – built after Hurricane Juan in 1985 – on the church’s property and space to house cleanup teams on church grounds. They asked about bringing in 50 trailers.
After several hard days of clearing the land, however, Verett is still waiting to hear if BP is going to follow through on its request.
The stress is taking its toll.
He was in the hospital for three days recently with chest pains. A follow-up angiogram showed five blockages that won’t require surgery or stints at this time but will mean he will be on medication and needs to curtail his activities. He knows he just avoided a heart attack.
The Rev. Kirby Verett leads children's worship at Clanton Chapel United Methodist Church in Dulac.
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But a few days later, Verett is happily greeting the congregation as they come into church.
Joys and concerns are mixed with the oil spill and shrimping.
“Did you smell the oil last night? I did.”
This Sunday, the message is from Luke 9:62. He reads, “Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’”
“Jesus says, ‘Don’t look back!’” he declares to the few scattered around the sanctuary.
At the end of the service, he greets each person. People linger to share their lives with each other.
“We do not have millionaires who are members here; we have good loving, hospitable people that are faithful to the church,” he says. “And out of that, good things keep coming.”
Verett believes in good things.
“I am living down the street here and it ain’t just a life, it’s an adventure.
“God has a better plan for all of us, if you are willing to give into what God has planned for your life then you can be happy and fulfilled and in easy and hard times he is going to lead you through.”
*Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.