Chris Nelhig waits. He stands in the midst of a group of fellow fishermen, a few taking drags on cigarettes. All are out of work. Women and children in shorts and t-shirts sit beneath a tent which offers shade, while others line up in folding chairs or sit on rails of a wooden ramp leading up to a tan trailer that now serves as a Catholic Charities emergency assistance center. Nelig, a fisherman for 36 years, wears a tan visor over a long ponytail. His face is glossy with sweat.
“What’s going on down here, [with regard to the oil spill], I don’t completely understand it yet,” he says. “I can’t get the truth from nobody. Don’t know how long it’s going to last.” His eyes shine, but show his worry. The environmental and economic effects of the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling site off the Gulf Coast more than a month ago are obvious, but what many don’t see are the emotional effects on the fishermen and their families.
The emergency assistance center outside which Nelig stands is located in St. Bernard, Louisiana, and is one of five relief centers set up by Catholic Charities since the largest oil spill in U.S. history effectively closed 75,920 square miles of federal fishing waters.
“The effects on me?,’ asks Nelhig. “It goes from being able to pay your bills to being able to buy presents for your grandkids on their birthdays. It puts a lot of strain on family life; it’s hard to get along with your spouse even.”
Many agencies in New Orleans have recognized the impact the BP oil disaster on families, and Catholic Charities of New Orleans and Second Harvest Food Bank are among those working together to alleviate some of the resulting stressors. “There are people who have to make choices between rent and food and we help to ease that burden,” said Leslie Doles of Second Harvest.
Crises situations raise stress levels, which can result in violence, as evidenced in the rise in cases of domestic violence after Hurricane Katrina. Catholic Charity aid workers and partner organizations are now trying to help families avoid the kinds of stressful situations that can lead to violence. BP has contributed one million dollars to Catholic Charities and Second Harvest, and about one third of the money has been used to hire 14 case managers and another 5 or 6 counselors for to aid with emergency counseling for 90 days.
“The level of anxiety is huge right now,” said the Rev. John Andone, pastor of St. Bernard Church in St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana. He estimates that 45 percent of his parishioners make their living on the water. “It’s the fear of the unknown. So many people say to me, ‘Father, we’re just crawling out of the hole from Katrina and now this oil is coming,’ They feel beat up, but they’re not giving up hope. They want to get back to their normal life, but it’s anything but that.”
Since May 1 more than 6,200 people have received assistance through Catholic Charities, and more than 500 people have received counseling. Still, uncertainty remains. “In addition to the stressors of not being able to work, children are at home, money is tight, it’s hot,” said Marilyn Shraberg of Catholic Charities. “We’re a very hardworking community and people are very proud here. We don’t like to ask for help unless we really need it,” she said.
Now, it is needed. More than 100 people came through the emergency assistance center at St. Anthony Church in its first two days of operation. Fishermen seeking assistance from BP are eligible for up to $5,000 and deck hands for up to $2,500, but these amounts are hardly sufficient compensation for the $30,000 or more per month fishermen may make during a good season.
“There’s no telling when you’re going to go out [fishing] again,” Nelhig said with a sigh. “I received one check. I don’t know when the next one is coming. What can I say but, 'pray upon it.'" That’s about all Nelig can do right now. For everything else—the answers, the money, a return to the livelihood he loves and longs for—he continues to wait.