2 Years On, Gulf Families, Businesses Holding On

On April 20th, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and set off the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Host Michel Martin speaks with researcher Irwin Redlener, who found that children suffered mental and physical stress from the spill. Martin also checks in with Byron Encalade, whose oyster business is struggling.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Earth Day is Sunday and in anticipation of that we're going to spend some time revisiting one of the worst environmental disasters in our nation's history: the BP oil spill. It's been exactly two years since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded some 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.

It dumped millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, killed 11 workers, and dramatically changed the lives of so many others. In a few minutes, we will check in with a man who owns an oyster business in Louisiana. He's still struggling to recover, especially since oysters take years to mature.

But first, we want to talk about how families have been coping. More than 1,000 residents took part in a survey shortly after the oil spill. They said their children, in particular, were going through some mental and physical stresses brought on by the disaster. The survey was done by researchers with the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. The center's president is Dr. Irwin Redlener.

He's also a pediatrician and we spoke with him back in 2010 and he's with us once again. Dr. Redlener, welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

IRWIN REDLENER: Thank you, Michel. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Now just to recap-when your team did the survey in 2010, parents were reporting that their kids suffered some serious effects like depression, sleep disorders, some behavioral problems. I wanted to ask if these conditions have abated at all or are they continuing?

REDLENER: This is the key question and as it turns out we are right now in the middle of a study to take another look at how the families are faring, not only in the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi but also into the coasts of Alabama and Florida. And the field teams are out there right now talking to families every day and the preliminary results are, you know, this is obviously - I just want to emphasize - it's anecdotal; it's not analyzed.

But there is a strong impression by our field interviewers that both mental health and physical health concerns continue to be a problem for families in the Gulf, especially with children.

MARTIN: Talking about the physical conditions that you talked about, you talked at the time, when we first spoke about this, that kids were experiencing, you know, coughing, wheezing, rashes. And I understand, again, that this is, again, anecdotal evidence. You've just gone back into the field, your teams have. But what are you hearing on that score?

REDLENER: Well, we're hearing that something in the order of one in five to one in six children, so far, are being reported as having worsened symptoms of wheezing and coughing, and some rashes and things of that nature. And obviously we're going to have to really get into the data and analyze this information. But the fact of the matter is, there's every reason to believe that we're going to find a persistent problem with the physical ailments that parents were concerned about a year out.

MARTIN: One of the things I was interested in asking you about, is what are you most concerned about? As a person, as a pediatrician, but also a person with a long-term interest in, you know, both the physical and mental health of families and communities over time. What are you most concerned about; if I may ask?

REDLENER: We are definitely concerned that this kind of trauma for children that has both mental health as well as physical health impacts can have very long-term effects in children, and can carry through in terms of chronic illnesses, but also, you know, we're worried about will kids be able to succeed in school and what is the general wellbeing like.

And we are really concerned - many of these families in the Gulf were not particularly well off, economically, to begin with. Some were doing just fine, but then businesses were really cut back after the spill, so there's been a lot of stress, economically and otherwise. We're finding, already, families who have been living doubled-up, tripled-up, with friends or other families.

It's very difficult for these kids and their families. So I am definitely concerned, just from a lot of clinical experience, that there will be long-term impact of this. But really, we need to verify this data before we make any definitive statements.

MARTIN: What about the medical infrastructure to treat these concerns? Both treatment for physical conditions and for mental health conditions. I think a lot of people will remember that the medical infrastructure, along with everything else, was severely disrupted after Hurricane Katrina. You know...

REDLENER: Right.

MARTIN: ...a couple of years before that. And I was wondering whether enough of the infrastructure had been restored so that people can get treatment for the issues that they're now dealing with because of the BP oil spill.

REDLENER: Well, that's a great question and actually, the lack of healthcare access and challenges getting to healthcare is one of the preconditions that was a problem, actually, even before Katrina. So Plaquemines Parish, which is one of the hardest hit areas in terms of the oil spill, down at the very southern tip of Louisiana, already had terrible lack of pediatric resources and primary care availability for families to begin with.

This even predates Katrina and certainly predates the BP oil spill. So now we have this catastrophic event with lots of long-term consequences from it and real difficulties for families who need to get healthcare. So that's why the Children's Health Fund is down there, will be down there for as long as we can, but it's really a really big problem.

So the infrastructure, not good to begin with, is still very much a factor in getting care for these families.

MARTIN: Dr. Irwin Redlener is a pediatrician and professor of clinical population and family health. He's also the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. And as we said, he's in the middle of surveying families and public officials about how the BP oil spill has affected them. He was with us from our bureau in New York.

But I'm going to ask Dr. Redlener to stand by as we bring in another guest. We want to talk with one of the people we've been checking in with, from time to time, to talk about how the BP oil spill that was two years ago, as we said, has been affecting people along the Gulf. Many people are still struggling to restore their businesses, including Byron Encalade. He runs an oyster business in the town of Pointe a la Hache in Louisiana.

He's the president of the Louisiana Oysterman Association. We've been checking in with him over the past two years to see how he's doing. He's with us from New Orleans. Mr. Encalade, thanks so much for talking with us again as well.

BYRON ENCALADE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Byron, let's talk a little bit about you, if we could. I just want to mention that oysters take a very long time to mature. It can take, what, anywhere from two to three years, sometimes two to five years, and some of the reef beds were completely destroyed. So can I just ask, you know, how are you making it right now?

ENCALADE: We've been totally relying on the claims process with the fielders. So, yes, we're optimistic now, because we have just had went through process where the court has taken it over and basically we're seeing some, you know, a light at the end of the tunnel. So we have a long road to go. We have a lot of money that we have to spend in reinvestment.

Those that could afford those have already started their reinvestment to build the oyster farms back, but we still have a long way to go and it's going to take a lot of money to reinvest to get it back.

MARTIN: So really, right now, you have to kind of restore the oyster beds. There's really no production going on at all right now in your area? Is that right?

ENCALADE: Absolutely. The Pointe a la Hache community is completely dead. The oyster economy is dead in the water. So even though we are still looking for three to five years out, but we haven't started to recover because we haven't saw the reproduction. There's no little oysters. There's no baby oysters out there now in our area.

MARTIN: I understand, also, that, you know, your business had a lot of different elements to it. You also had a trucking company, which makes sense, to kind of deliver the product to people. What's the trucking company doing? What's going on with that?

ENCALADE: I've completely dismantled it. I had no other choice. I had to liquidate it. There's no way I could, you know, afford to keep the trucks and the insurance, the drivers employed. Some of them have went on and get employment other places. It's going to be extremely difficult. So that part of it I've liquidated. The boats, of course, that is the backbone of my business - oysters.

So we are just hanging on, you know, and hopefully with the new transition period, now, hopefully we can secure the funds we need to reinvest to start our recovery.

MARTIN: Is there anything that you would particularly want people to know about what's going on in your community, that you think they, perhaps, might not know?

ENCALADE: Well, I think the doctor have just shed a lot of light to it - the mental health part of it. You know, that was something we've always felt been overlooked, especially in our community, that's been basically put under a lot of stress. The family, the children in the school - we can't - even our veterans. You know, a lot of people don't realize we have a lot of Vietnam veterans who are already suffering from PTSD and Vietnam and those that's coming back.

This is where they relieve themselves. To get on that water, that's peace of mind, and we've lost that, so we have that problem. I know the VA's dealing with it, so that was something, I think, overlooked.

And when we look at our Asian community, which make up the majority of our fishermen in lower Plaquemine, we talking about the people that came through in the '70s that fled Vietnam under very stressful situations. Some of them lost their family, their parents. And now we're talking about situations that are putting a lot of stress on those communities.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Mr. Encalade, do you mind if I ask - how are you doing?

ENCALADE: I'm holding up. I'm doing fine. You know, that's one thing about the bayou people. You know, we're a very diverse community and we just talked about the Asian-Americans. We have the Croatian community, and the people are very resilient. We're going to stand. I mean, these people have endured hardships, even coming to America. We're going to do what we have to do. We're not going to fade away. We've dealt with controversy and we're going to continue fighting.

MARTIN: Dr. Redlener, did you want to give us a final thought before we let you both go?

REDLENER: We struggle so much in the U.S. in terms of learning from previous experiences. You know, in the big picture world, I am worried that at the end of the day if something like this were to happen again, we won't be much better prepared to cope with the human aspects of this tragedy.

MARTIN: Well, we'll stay on top of it, to our ability.

REDLENER: I appreciate that.

MARTIN: Dr. Irwin Redlener - that's who was speaking just now - is a pediatrician and professor of clinical population and family health. He's the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, and as you heard earlier, he is conducting another survey of families and public officials about how the BP oil spill has affected them. He was with us from our bureau in New York.

With us from New Orleans, Byron Encalade. He's an oysterman from the Louisiana coast. He's the president of the Louisiana Oysterman Association. He was with us from New Orleans and we've been checking in with him from time to time to see how he's doing over the past two years.

Mr. Encalade, thank you so much for joining us. Dr. Redlener, thank you as well.

REDLENER: My pleasure.

ENCALADE: My pleasure too.

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