Report from the Gulf

The BP spill is shattering hopes and dreams along the Gulf Coast.
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 10, 2010


On a windy Tuesday afternoon in New Orleans, Clara Gerica is in her usual spot: beneath a small, blue tent at the Crescent City Farmers Market in the well-to-do Uptown neighborhood.

She's already sold out of shrimp, drum-fish filets, and peeled crab meat — all fresh caught by her husband Pete, packaged, and hauled to market in the half-ton pick-up truck backed up to the stall.

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But she still has some jumbo lump crab meat, plucked from the hind legs. And this, she insists, is the best stuff.

"Oh, it's like heaven," says Gerica, 57, with a laugh that shakes her big frame.

Her chuckle, though, does little to quell the anxiety that hangs over the market this afternoon. It is Day 77 of the BP oil disaster and tar balls have just been found in one of Pete's prime fisheries, Lake Pontchartrain — a brackish, 630-square-mile estuary just north of the city.

For the people of New Orleans, already driven to distraction by the spill, this is a painful turn. The lake, connected to the Gulf of Mexico by a series of waterways, is far enough from the blowout that many believed it would remain untouched. Gerica's customers, feeling the approach of the crude, buy with a sort of desperation.

"Who knows when we'll get it again," says a middle-aged woman, picking up a container of the crab meat. "I just want to cry."

For the Gericas, the spill comes after an extraordinarily hard stretch. Five years ago, the family hunkered down along the southern rim of the lake to ride out Hurricane Katrina — and watched the storm obliterate their house and everything they owned.

Pete had to pry his 77-year-old mother loose from the debris and lash her to a tree to keep her from drowning. Clara floated away on a door, separated from her family for seven hours.

It was only recently that life seemed to be reaching some kind of equilibrium. Pete, who has been living in a trailer on the family property for five years, is close to completing a new house. This spring, he was expecting the first good crab run since Katrina.

But fishery closures connected to the spill put a stop to that. And now, with no one quite sure of the long-term impact of the oil, the Gericas have been forced to reconsider the life they built — and rebuilt.

Pete, 57, can't imagine an alternative; the family moved to Baton Rouge for a time after the storm and the life of the landlocked ate at him.

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