The last of Leeville
A wide spot in the road sees its chances grow slim as the BP oil spill threatens its existence
Originally published June 18, 2010 in The Washington Post
LEEVILLE, LA. -- Their eyes are bloodshot. Their scraggy skin glows reddish-brown. They clutch cans of beer. On the wooden deck of Griffin's Marina and Ice, they recoil when approached, like a nest of vipers.
"We used to be fishermen," one sneers, drunk, seething with wounded pride. "But now we work for BP."
They won't say more than that. From their perch, they glare across the silent street at the gorgeous marshland now closed to fishing. At dusk they screech away in pickup trucks, barely pausing at the town's one blinking traffic light. They surrender Leeville to shadow, to the mosquitoes, to what used to be and now isn't, to a solemn reality captured in two words that embody the collapse of a way of life.
This summer may mark the end of Leeville, a town birthed by a hurricane, then destroyed by one, resurrected by oil and now destroyed by oil. It isn't the only dying town outside the levee systems in south Louisiana. Subsidence, the sinking of delta land, has long been the existential enemy down here. Now wild crude has delivered what may be the final blow, choking off commerce. Some residents foresee an abandoned landscape, something right out of a Wild West movie, with empty slips instead of silent saloons, belly-up redfish instead of skittering tumbleweeds.
* * *
At the blinking traffic light, most drivers turn right and glide over the bayou to Port Fourchon, which services 90 percent of deep-water drilling structures in the Gulf of Mexico. Then it's on to Grand Isle, a paradise for sunbathers and beachfront property owners.
Confused drivers proceed through the light, past the sign that says "NO OUTLET," past two gas stations, four RV parks, a half-dozen bait-and-tackle shops, two motels and one bar, then run smack into a "ROAD CLOSED" sign just before pavement halts at the marsh.
That was Leeville. About a mile long, hugged by bayou, full-time home to a handful of people. No more than 60. Maybe not even 30. No one knows. Right now there should be hundreds of visiting fishermen leasing their own heavenly corner of the town's bayou front, but with waters closed by the Deepwater Horizon leak, there's no reason to come, no reason to stay.
For decades, storm surges have swallowed 14 square miles every year in the basins of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes. Last year the state redirected Highway 1 around Leeville to elevate the hurricane evacuation route. The town's only thoroughfare became a dead end. Now residents worry that a hurricane will drench the area with oil this summer, killing the root structure that keeps the very earth together.
Leeville will be gone.
"To me, Leeville was gone 20 years ago," says Windell Curole, general manager of the South Lafourche Levee District, who says the town was 90 percent marsh in the '60s and is now 90 percent underwater. "When we did not take the action to protect the marshes around Leeville, that was the beginning of the end. The communities in southern Louisiana remain here despite floodwaters because this place produces tremendous amounts of biomass. A 7-year-old can go fish in back and catch enough food to feed his family."
* * *
Hardly anyone's home. Maybe a half-dozen of 200 RV and camper spots remain occupied. Rusted carnage from Katrina, Rita, Ike and Gustav litters the roadside. Trailers are tacked with cheeky decals saying things like: "If You Don't Fish Then Why Am I Talking to You?"
The heat comes from every direction, even the ground. It's quiet.
Bobby Bryan sits in his motorized wheelchair in his home at the southern tip of town. Lace curtains checker the late-afternoon sunlight. There is nothing to do. Bryan can't operate his fishing guide business. There are no tenants in his 26-slot RV park. He has time to think.
Every Saturday 70 years ago, Bryan's mother would bake biscuits, load her 10 children into the family wagon upstate, get to the bayou and catch fish for lunch. They'd spend the day on the water. The water was life.
Fifty-seven years ago, when Bobby married his wife, Juanita, their marriage vows were: (1) He would always make sure she could go to church; and (2) She'd always leave him alone while he was fishing.
They moved to Leeville in 1990 to open the RV park and Marsh Masters Guide Service. Their son and grandson followed. The Bryans are still paying off the land. Katrina flooded their home, Rita ripped the roof off. A second mortgage was in order. BP cut them a check for June. They're grateful, even though it's not enough to cover insurance, lost revenue, repairs and what they assume is the plummeting value of their property.
"We're too old to start over," Juanita says, sitting under a portrait of a smiling Jesus holding a fishing net.
"I'd compare it to prison," says Bobby, 76.
"All you can do is put your faith in God," Juanita says.
God, right now, is an oil company.
BP "said they're gonna make me whole," Bobby says. "I'm waiting to see what that means."
Their 24-year-old grandson, Matthew, pulls into the RV park around 6 p.m. in a pickup truck.
"I'm more of a realist," says Matthew, who works construction on a new Highway 1 bridge while his father, an out-of-work guide for Marsh Masters, does contract cleanup for BP. "I see this as the beginning of another depression if the rigs and waters don't reopen. We'll lose everything that goes with it: the money, the culture, the traditions that weren't even mine yet."
* * *
In 1893 a hurricane blew its French-speaking survivors 12 miles inland from the coastal settlement of Cheniere Caminada, near modern-day Grand Isle. They bought tracts for $12.50 each and founded Leeville. They farmed, fished, trapped. Oranges hung heavy in verdant groves surrounded by rice fields. The land was three to four feet higher back then. In 1915 a hurricane pulverized all but one of the 100 houses in town. The Cajun families continued their generational march inland, leaving Leeville to languish until 1930, when a forest of derricks sprouted to pump newly discovered oil. When the shallow fields dried up, the fertile bayous continued to support fishermen, oystermen and shrimpers.
For 20 years Leeville has been a bustling outpost for the oil and fishing industries. Ice whooshed from freezers to coolers on sloops and tugboats. Sausage sizzled on the griddles of mom-and-pop eateries. Vacationing retirees gathered for 4 p.m. coffee every day in the Bryans' RV park.
Then the super-hurricanes came. Then the highway was rerouted. Then the waters were closed.
Griffin's Marina and Ice has lost 90 percent of its customers and laid off five employees. The Griffin family, who set up shop in 1977, filed claims with BP but haven't seen any money yet. At Leeville Seafood Restaurant, only three tables are occupied at dinnertime, when normally 75 fishermen would be scarfing stuffed soft-shells with special "Leeville crab sauce."
Owners Sue and Harris Cheramie, whose fathers were both shrimpers, sip Diet Coke. The oil slick is sinking them, they say, but the rigs need to operate. Drilling is a gamble, but it's a gamble that needs to be made again and again.
"This country cannot run without oil," Harris says. "We need it for plastic, fiberglass, that shirt you're wearing, that chair you're sitting on. We'll need oil for the rest of our lives, in some way."
The renters at Leeville RV Park have skipped town, itching to break their year-long leases. Terry Serigny, whose family helped found Leeville and who was raised here on houseboats, turned off the freezers at his bait shop when he closed last month. He hopes to receive a second $5,000 payment from BP soon.
"This is tearing us up," says Serigny, 57. "When everybody looks at each other, you can see it in people's eyes. We've fought recessions, and storm after storm. We can't fight this. . . . I don't have no other place to live. I only went to the sixth grade. It would be hard for me to wear a tie and have a briefcase and look for a job."
Leeville is still a slice of paradise, says Lynn LeBlanc Gros, who co-owns Bobby Lynn's Marina. In the mornings she goes to her dock, sees white egrets flying, hears porpoises surfacing for breath. She daydreams about every Cajun picking up a shovel to build another levee to stop the oil from reaching these marshes.
* * *
At night, the only sound is the buzz of air-conditioning. The last fisherman has fled the deck at Griffin's. It's dark by the water, except for the blue glow of an iPhone aboard the St. Vincent, a docked shrimping boat. Vu Vo, a 24-year-old deckhand, is waiting for his cousins to call about working for BP. He goes into the cabin, where a Jet Li movie dubbed in Vietnamese is paused on a TV, and wonders what he'll do if he can't get a cleanup gig.
"This is like all I know," Vo says of shrimping.
At the outdoor washeteria up the street, security contractors shove quarters into the laundry machines. They're working 14-hour days and staying at the motels across the street. By 10 p.m. some of them wind up at the only bar in town, Pappy's Place, where they throw back shots of Southern Comfort. The jukebox shuffles between Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. A strand of colored Christmas lights dangles over liquor bottles. The owner, Harris Ebanks, immigrated from Honduras in 1974, wound up in Leeville by accident and decided to stay.
He looks at the rowdy young security personnel around the pool table, then at the three regulars sitting at the bar. They're pissed off, drinking Bud Light, narrowing their eyes at the out-of-towners. They say Leeville's dead, that people are starting to starve, that lawlessness is coming, that despondency has already arrived. Townspeople cut the grass over and over to pass time. The natural order is upset. Fishermen aren't meant to be mopping up oil in white hazmat suits.
"That's not these guys," says Wayne Thomas, a welder from Baton Rouge who retired to Leeville with his camper. "These boys are a dying breed. I'm sad to see our culture -- the culture of living off the land -- is gonna die because of a screw-up that could've been fixed before it happened."
The town should be teeming right now, says Geraldine Busey, who works at Tyd's tackle shop up the street. Instead it's a ghost town. Everyone who's left is slowly going crazy.
She feeds $5 bills into a poker video game by the bar, punching DEAL, DRAW and HOLD. Her investment evaporates slowly. GAME OVER flashes on the screen again and again. She puts more bills in.
The only thing you can do, says her husband, William, is hope and wait, here on a bar stool. Hope and wait.
After a couple more rounds of beer, Geraldine screams. "Ah! I got the four deuces!"
The screen flashes WINNER, WINNER. Her pot rockets to $141.25.
Cash out, Geraldine, the men say. Cash out.
"I'm gonna keep playing," she says.
She slips another five into the machine. DEAL. DRAW. HOLD.
DEAL. DRAW. HOLD.
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