Archbishop of Mobile Thomas Rodi blesses the fleet in Bayou La Batre Sunday. He asked God to bless those who are working to contain and to stop the oil leak.
Archbishop of Mobile Thomas Rodi blesses the fleet in Bayou La Batre Sunday. He asked God to bless those who are working to contain and to stop the oil leak. Debbie Elliott/NPR
Efforts are under way to protect fragile Gulf coastline from the approaching oil.
In Alabama, inflatable containment booms washed ashore over the weekend because of rough surf. The state is working to put them back before the oil reaches its shores.
"Our goal is to make sure no oil goes onto the beach or into the estuary," says Gov. Bob Riley.
But coastal residents are bracing for the worst.
News that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration closed much of the Gulf to fishing came Sunday as colorfully decorated boats lined up in Bayou La Batre, Ala., for a yearly ritual in the town that calls itself the "seafood capital of the state."
Since 1949, the archbishop of Mobile has come down to the bayou to pray for a bountiful harvest from the sea and for the safety of the oystermen, shrimpers and commercial anglers who ply the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
It's usually a community celebration with music, fresh seafood and a party on every boat. This year, however, the mood was somber with the knowledge that a giant oil slick was just offshore.
"They really need a blessing this year," Darvin Barbour said. "That oil is just going to tear us up this year."
Barbour, 36, has lived in Bayou La Batre all his life.
It's "getting ready to change big time for everybody," Barbour added. "No more seafood. Bunch [of] people are going to be in dire need."
BP has been offering anglers in Bayou La Batre and elsewhere payments up to $5,000 if they give up their right to sue. Alabama Attorney General Troy King has told BP to stop circulating the settlement agreements and is urging Alabamians to seek legal counsel before signing anything.
Barbour, a former shrimper, says meetings so far with representatives from BP have not been helpful.
"One person says you need to do this, somebody else says you need to do that. We don't know what we need to do," Barbour said. "If we knew what we need to know, then we could go out and do something. But you don't know."
Archbishop Thomas Rodi, during his blessing, acknowledged the anxiety and prayed for the responders:
"We ask God to bless those who are working to contain and to stop the oil leak. We ask God to protect us, to protect the livelihoods of those who make their living in the seafood industry and tourism industry. And we ask God to protect our way of life which is imperiled by this danger of this oil slick."
Then it was time for the blessing of the boats on the water. The archbishop stood on the bow of the lead boat, and a few dozen vessels followed out to the mouth of the bayou.
Fisherman Wilson Johnson, 35, was in his small aluminum boat, hoping to get a sprinkle of holy water as he contemplated a murky future.
"We've lived on the bayou our whole life. That's all we know. That just sad if something does happen and you gotta move away, where would we go? My daddy's daddy's daddy — that's all we ever knew was seafood."
Melissa Bosarge Nelson also grew up here, her family working in the seafood industry. Now she's a tour operator.
"It's hard to think about," Nelson said. "I can't image not being able to get in my boat to go out. We have pleasure boats. Our company, we run the sightseeing cruises from Bellingrath Gardens and already we've seen a decline because people aren't coming to Orange Beach and we're not getting the tourists during the day."
She says at least with a hurricane you can start rebuilding when the storm passes, but this disaster has no end in sight.
"Who would think that this would happen?" Nelson asked. "I'm not an engineer, but seems to me you would have five or six ways to cut that thing off."
Nelson and others here wonder whether Bayou La Batre will even have a fleet to bless come next May.
Republican Rep. Jo Bonner of Mobile says a lot is hanging in the balance. "This may be one of those life-changing moments that an individual, a community, a region of the country is living through," he said.
Bonner says even if the well is capped today, this could still be the biggest environmental and economic crisis the Gulf Coast has ever faced.