Kruse lived in a place where, like Maine, tourism and fishing are major forces. What does it mean when disaster-either natural or unnatural-befalls a place that depends so heavily on the surrounding environment? Gulf Coast residents and Louisianans especially have a fierce, almost defiant, sense of place that is tied to the land and the sea, to history and music and art, a sense so strong even a visitor can feel it. In what ways can this relationship with natural resources, and the culture it inspires, help communities come back stronger after disaster?

Of all the questions that echoed in my head upon my return from the Gulf Coast in October, these were the ones it seemed most important to answer. 

Remember: On April 20, 2010, less than 50 miles from the Louisiana coast, the Deepwater Horizon rig that had been drilling an oil well for British Petroleum exploded, killing 11 people. For three months, more than a mile beneath the surface, the open well gushed five million barrels of oil into the ocean. All drilling operations stopped, 90,000 square miles of federal waters were closed to fishing, and oil began to wash up on marshes and beaches as DC-3s set up like giant crop dusters sprayed Corexit dispersant onto surface slicks, and hundreds of thousands of gallons of dispersant chemical were blasted directly at the spewing well.

Remember: Much of this region is still in the midst of rebuilding and recovering from multiple hurricanes that damaged hundreds of thousands of homes, killed thousands of people, left physical and mental scars on the survivors, destroyed 85% of the fishing fleet and erased entire neighborhoods.

Remember: This is the same Gulf of Mexico where an oxygen-starved dead zone the size of Aroostook County appears annually as the Mississippi River brings excess nutrient runoff from 40 percent of the continental U.S., and where 24 square miles of land are lost each year to rising seas.

Remember these things, because each has everything to do with the other.


The opportunity of disaster

Next to one of the many great arching bridges of Interstate 10, rising from the railyards along the Industrial Canal in New Orleans, a billboard warns: “Disaster Invites Fraud.”

Like the eyes of Dr. Eckelberg in The Great Gatsby, the billboard is a reminder that this place should be watched, for the disasters like those in the Gulf Coast reveal both real and metaphorical cracks in the foundation of society, weaknesses in laws and regulations, challenges of the status quo and discrediting of government and political figures. And in those cracks, disaster invites visions for positive change, for a different future.

As communities recover from disaster, they have a rare opportunity to become stronger and more resilient. Gulf communities have shown incredible resilience and strong commitment to recovery, according to the federal government’s Long-Term Recovery Plan for the Gulf Coast released in September.

But the plan also states that Gulf Coast residents are worried about losing “the Gulf’s distinct culture and way of life,” and “as a result, community organizations, state officials, and traditional providers have been conducting outreach, training, and other services for those who exhibit fear, sadness, irritability, and loss of hope.”

The psychological toll from recent hurricanes is now compounded by the latest disaster. In the first two months of the oil leak, one-third of all BP claims reports for health problems were for anxiety and stress, and calls from the Gulf Coast states to the National Domestic Violence Hotline increased 13 percent. Domestic violence hotline calls from New Orleans alone increased 81 percent.Studies of the Exxon Valdez oil spill found that the most common psychiatric diagnoses following that disaster were anxiety, depression and post%u2010traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Fishermen reported the most psychological distress, and many still had problems ten years later. The extent of chronic mental health patterns was related to the extent that a community depended on its natural resources for survival.

“Gulf Coast communities know how to fish and survive natural disasters by relying on that ability,” said Kris Van Orsdel of Louisiana’s Disaster Recovery Unit. And fishermen want nothing more than to fish, to return to normal as a way to heal. But after Hurricane Katrina, even though the natural resources came back quickly, most fishermen couldn’t access a “bumper crop” of shrimp because their boats were tangled in knots, adrift on distant highways or locked up as salvage debris, according to Rusty Gaudé, an area fisheries agent with Louisiana Sea Grant. After the Deepwater Horizon disaster, fishermen had to choose between not fishing or working for BP.

For William Allen Kruse, the choice was an impossible one.


The role of culture in resilience

The government’s plan recognizes the opportunity to make the Gulf healthier and more resilient than it was before the spill. The signs are there: elevated homes, green construction, efforts to diversify the economy and a renewed commitment to restoring the region’s coastal wetlands.

But for all of the federal plan’s discussion of “strengthening the health of the region’s residents” and “making the Gulf’s economy adaptable,” the region’s culture was barely mentioned, yet research has shown the benefits of informal social support networks in helping people recover from disaster. As Rebecca Solnit suggested in her book, Paradise Built in Hell, “The positive emotions that arise in unpromising circumstances demonstrate that social ties and meaningful work are deeply desired, readily improvised, and intensely rewarding.” In Louisiana, social networks exist within a place-based culture of music, food, art, and history. This is the source of community resilience. This is why New Orleans is a place of resurgent spirit in the face of recurring nightmare.

No government program can provide the kind of healing power that comes from a night at Tipitina’s with the Soul Rebels Brass Band. And herein lies the lesson for Maine: Drawing strength on their heritage, Gulf Coast residents are finding that taking care of each other is not only the way to survive, but it might be the way to thrive.

Catherine Schmitt is communications coordinator for Maine Sea Grant.