Democracy Now!’s Anjali Kamat visits the town of Phoenix, Louisiana on the east bank of Plaquemines Parish, an area that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She speaks to Reverend Tyronne Edwards, a pastor and longtime community activist who spearheaded efforts to rebuild the largely African American fishing community after Katrina. In the aftermath of the BP oil spill disaster, Rev. Edwards is at the forefront of getting Washington, DC to pay attention to the needs of his community, whom he calls the “forgotten people” of Plaquemines Parish. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: How much can a people take? You have in the Gulf of Mexico not only an oil geyser gushing, but hurricane season has officially begun this week, with growing concerns that the storms could wash more of the BP oil spill ashore.
Earlier this week, as we traveled through the bayous and the coastal towns of Louisiana, Democracy Now!'s Anjali Kamat went to Phoenix, Louisiana, on the east bank of Plaquemines Parish, an area devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She spoke with Reverend Tyronne Edwards, a pastor and longtime community activist who spearheaded efforts to rebuild the largely African American fishing community after Katrina. His organization is called Zion [Travelers] Cooperative Center. It's also involved with the Fishermen and Concerned Citizens Organization. Now, in the aftermath of the BP oil catastrophe, Reverend Tyronne Edwards is at the forefront of getting Washington, DC to pay attention to the needs of his community, whom he calls the “forgotten people” of Plaquemines Parish.
He outlined the main concerns of the local fishing community, particularly with regards to the BP claim process.
REV. TYRONNE EDWARDS: One of the big problems that happened with local fishermen, the African American and Cambodian fishermen in our community, you have an anxiety level that’s really high right now. And the reason why we have this high anxiety is because there’s uncertainty. Number one, how are they going to feed their family? Because here BP and the federal government have created these no-fishing zones in certain areas, and it’s preventing them from feeding their family. They don’t know how they — how long it’s going to last. You know, how are they going to make a living? They have came out the process of organizing. We opened up a claim office, give some people $2,500, $1,500. But there’s so much uncertainty. When do we get another check?
This is the height of the season for a lot of shrimpers and stuff. You closed down the best time of the year for them. Now, in addition to that, when you get ready to go shrimp, you’re getting your boat together, you’re repaying all the things, you’re putting all the stuff in, new equipment, updating equipment, tuning up, doing all those mechanical things that you need. So you invest your money into that, and then when you’re ready to go out in the water, stop. It’s like you’re climbing up a ladder, and when you get to the top of the ladder, somebody just pull that ladder from under you. We’re saying that’s what BP and the federal government have done.
So what we’re trying to do with our fishermen and our community is getting the federal government to set up some oversight of this claim process, because we see this claim process being a disaster, just like the Road Home program was a disaster. It never brought anybody home. Matter of fact, it disrupted homes, and it wasn’t any help in home. So we’re saying if the government don’t come in and set in some oversight, then BP will continue doing what they’re doing. And we think that BP have not been fair. They haven’t been upfront with everybody. We’re saying BP should be in the check-cashing seat and not the driver’s seat. And we’re saying to let BP continue to control this process without any government regulation whatsoever is like putting Dracula over a blood bank and expect blood at the end of the deal. And so, we’re saying this claim process has to be changed.
ANJALI KAMAT: What’s been the response from the Obama administration, from lawmakers?
REV. TYRONNE EDWARDS: One of the things that happened to us, we understand that if we was going to get this claim process to have government oversight, we had to go to Washington. So we’ve made several trips to Washington, DC, and we met with federal — and even before we went to Washington, DC, we hosted — our organization, Zion Travelers Cooperative Center, hosted a meeting with federal agencies. Five federal agencies came to Plaquemines Parish to meet with fishermen and their families. So we had EPA, we had the Coast Guard, we had the National Oceanic Atmosphere Administration, we had OSHA. We had all these people there in the church. The Church was full with fishermen who wanted some answers. The disheartening part of all this, that they did not get any answers from any of the federal agents. Matter of fact, we say that all those federal agencies was mirroring the same thing that BP was saying, so the people were more apathetic leaving the meeting than they did when they came in. So we’re saying that they’re saying the same thing BP is saying. So we left, and then we went to DC.
We met with the Department of Commerce. We met with the faith-based initiative from the White House. We met right across from the White House with the Environmental Quality Control people. We’ve met with every federal agency you could think of. And we, at this point, are still disenchanted by what’s happening, because we don’t see any result. The President, he’s one of the first presidents in the history of this parish to actually travel the whole length of this parish in a car. But we’re saying his visit hasn’t changed anything in this community whatsoever.
Lisa Jackson, we respect her, but before we went to Washington, when we first met her, we said, “Ms. Jackson, we respect you, but historically the EPA and Louisiana have been sleeping in the bed with the petroleum industry.” And we’re saying that there’s a trust issue here. How can we trust the Environmental Protection Agency when historically we saw the same with Norpass right after Katrina. They came out and said everything was safe, when we knew everything wasn’t safe. So we went to Washington. That’s the same message we took with every federal agency. We made it clear we’ve got a trust issue.
We told the federal government in our community meeting. Women stood up with their grandchildren, and they asked the guy from the Coast Guard, he said, “Sir, would you have your grandchild live in Venice today?” He didn’t get an answer. And so, we closed that federal hearing by saying this to these five federal agencies: “Would you want your legacy, ten years from now, saying that you was involved in history at this time and saying that people died of cancer and everything from these toxins in the water, and you knew what BP was doing wrong with it, and you didn’t say nothing? Would you want that to be your legacy?”
ANJALI KAMAT: What are you hearing from fishermen in this community about what might happen if this oil spill is not controlled?
REV. TYRONNE EDWARDS: Well, first of all, if it’s not controlled, number one, it will kill the fishing industry. And so, once you kill the fishing industry, then you have devastated their whole life, because most of these people, that’s how they survive. Their whole living depends on the water environment. That’s all they know, every day. Some of these guys, you know, they fish every day — Sunday, Saturday — all day, because they own their own oyster bed. And so, right now, you’re destroying their lives. So we’re saying this is devastating, not only what they’re doing to the fishing industry, but what they’re doing to our health. We’re concerned about disperants in the water, because everything we do is controlled by the Mississippi River, the water we drink and the water that we take baths in. So once that’s contaminated, then you’re destroying us. So we’re concerned about an epidemic in our community that we didn’t have any control over. So this oil spill disaster have some long-term impact, and so that’s why you have the anxiety among our community now.
The thing that we are really frightened by, when we went to Washington, DC, after we left the House judiciary hearing, we went to a hearing that Senator Landry was having on the Senate side. We were frightened by the fact that she had a guy representing the large fishing industry, those people who does international business, right? And then we had Byron Encalade, who represent little fishermen that goes out and get 200 sacks of oysters, compared to somebody who’s dealing with hundred thousands of sacks of oysters. We found out more attention was being placed on them, because what they was trying — what Mary Landry was saying to BP, “Can somebody come to your office — can a business come to your office and file a million-dollar claim?” Well, we know our little fishermen can’t file a million-dollar claim.
So, again, we’re saying that to put emphasis on businesses, to put emphasis on casinos, and to put emphasis on tourism, once you do that, just like Hurricane Katrina, the casinos came back in Mississippi real fast, businesses came back, but local people still suffer. And we see the same dynamic taking place with Katrina, where the emphasis is being placed on the large business community. And we’re saying that we think the reason why, for us, is because these big business people can make contributions to elected officials’ campaigns. We can’t. We vote for you because what you does for us, and not because we can give you money. So we’re concerned that now the emphasis is going to them, that we’re going to get lost in that shuffle, because we cannot compete. We think we deserve the same kind of treatment as big business and casinos. What we’re seeing right now, the emphasis now is going to what’s tourism. We’re saying tourists have a choice. You know, they can come there for two days, but they can go back home and get on. But we’re talking about our lives.
ANJALI KAMAT: Reverend Edwards, this is a community that was devastated by Katrina. Talk about the impact of Katrina. You’ve compared the BP claims process to the Road Home program. Explain what you mean by that, as well.
REV. TYRONNE EDWARDS: Yeah, because Hurricane Katrina devastated our whole community, this very community that we’re in right now in Phoenix. Let’s say we had 166 homes in this community. After Katrina, we had like thirty houses on this foundation, and I was saying that half of them was like 50-50, should they be torn down or renovated and rebuilt? So our total community was devastated. We saw that in New Orleans, Louisiana, which is a metropolitan, urban city, international city — we saw how the government neglected the city of New Orleans, so we knew in Plaquemines Parish we wouldn’t stand a chance — survive. So we came together as a community and started a program called the Zion Travelers Cooperative Center to rebuild our community. And we’re saying we had very little government help in it.
The Road Home program was really difficult for a rural community like this, because even the land that we’re on right now is family-owned. And so, people own their houses, but the land belongs to the whole family. And so, because of those dynamics, Road Home prevented a lot of community people from applying for the program, because you had to get all kind of documentation in order to prove that you own that land. And so that caused some problems, and it prevented a lot of people from applying for Road Home or being successful in the application process. Some people waited close to two years in order to get $70,000 from Road Home. And so, imagine, from 2005, and you’re waiting again for five years in order just to get Road Home money. We saw that as being the process. And the reason why it was a difficult process, because all the bureaucratic red tape. And so, that’s why we’re saying that the BP process is mirroring that process. So we could see the same dynamics that took place in Road Home taking place with the BP claim process, because if the government was really monitoring the Road Home process, it would have been a more effective program. And so, we’re saying the government must come in and put some oversight into the BP process to make it more effective for community people.
ANJALI KAMAT: And finally, Reverend Edwards, for people who don’t know very much about this community in Plaquemines Parish, the African American fishing community, can you say a little bit about the history of this community?
REV. TYRONNE EDWARDS: Yeah, well, the history of this community, you have four generations of family people here who always had to be independent. Because of institutionalized racism and segregation in this parish, the African American people were not allowed in the mainstream, so that means they had to be independent. Most of the African American people in this community survived. They were fishermen. The other group, they worked on the levee, did concrete work. The others worked on the riverfront and labored. And a lot of them were farmers and gardeners. They created their own schools, their own institutions, their own churches, in order to survive. So you had villages, and you had like a communal kind of living taking place. And they’ve always been independent.
We’re a self-determined community. And so this community youths have organizing. We’re strong in our faith. We have all kind of disasters come our way, but because of a religious conviction, we say, you know, we walk by faith, not by sight. And we was able to rebound after Katrina because of our sense of community and the community unity that we have and understanding that we’ve got to work hard, because the federal government will never come in on a white horse to rescue us.
AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Tyronne Edwards, pastor and longtime community activist with the fishing community in Phoenix, Louisiana, speaking to Democracy Now!’s Anjali Kamat and Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films.