Tempers Flare At Town Hall On Gulf Coast

Tempers flared Monday at a town hall meeting between residents of Saint Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans, and representatives of BP and the Coast Guard. Residents are angry that more of them aren't being put to work to help save what in this area is a way of life.

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Back on the Gulf Coast, BP has recruited hundreds of local fishermen to help deal with the spill. But in parishes along the Gulf, people are angry that more of them aren't being put to work.

Last night, several hundred residents of St. Bernard Parish confronted BP and Coast Guard representatives at a town hall meeting.

NPR's Pam Fessler was there.

PAM FESSLER: The St. Bernard residents sat patiently for more than a half-hour after their parish president asked them to please try to be hospitable. They listened to promises from the stage that the government and oil company would do everything they could to minimize the disaster and to make sure fishermen and others were fully compensated for their losses.

But when BP claims representative Allen Carpenter said this:

Mr. ALLEN CARPENTER (Claims Representative, British Petroleum): We want to be able to completely place a value on your loss. So we're going to ask you for income tax records, if you have income tax records, for the last two years.

FESSLER: It was too much for commercial fisherman Irwin Manassas(ph), who popped out of his seat.

Mr. IRWIN MANASSAS: Can you replace my heritage?

Mr. CARPENTER: No, sir. I can't.

Mr. MANASSAS: No, you can't. And you got to understand that it's not just money. It's more than money.

Mr. CARPENTER: I understand.

Mr. MANASSAS: You're not going to replace me being able to teach my kid how to fish.

FESSLER: People here are mad and frustrated. Mad that the waters where they usually catch shrimp and crabs and oysters are now contaminated with oil and frustrated that there's so little they can do about it.

The room was filled with ruddy-faced fishermen and those who rely on their business. Sharon Couture(ph) owns a small convenient store where those headed to nearby Shell Beach stop for cigarettes and supplies. She says business is off and she might have to shut down after years of surviving hurricanes.

Ms. SHARON COUTURE: You see, I went through George, Isidore, Lily, Ivan and Matthew. Ten days, I was back up and running. Katrina, it took me six months. This oil, I don't know if I'm going to come back.

FESSLER: Others complained of burning eyes and noxious odors from the contaminated water. One woman held up a bag filled with new asthma medications.

But most of the anger was reserved for BP's recruitment of local fishermen and boat owners to help with the cleanup, a program optimistically labeled Vessels of Opportunity.

But parish Councilman Wayne Landry said instead of offering opportunity, the program was pitting fishermen against fishermen because there were too few jobs to go around.

Mr. WAYNE LANDRY (Councilman, St. Bernard Parish): What I see happening in our community hurts me more than I see with oil damage. Everybody in here wants to work. None of these people are freeloaders in this room. And right now, there's a lot of anxiety about how they're going to feed their families.

FESSLER: BP representative Glen DeJean(ph), a company retiree who volunteered to help smooth relations with the community, said he understood the concerns. But he said BP could use only so many boats at a time to lay protective booms.

Mr. GLEN DEJEAN (British Petroleum): More people volunteered their boats and signed up to help than actual work to be done.

Ms. CHERYL BARNHART(ph): Don't tell me there isn't enough work.

(Soundbite of applause)

FESSLER: That outraged Cheryl Barnhart who said she's terrified of what will become of the parish where she spent her entire life and where her husband makes a living as a welder who repairs boats. Why, she asked, isn't more being done when everyone is so willing to help?

Ms. BARNHART: To hear that there were boats lined up in Plaquemines Parish with skimming equipment. Forty? How many boats are out there just waiting? Our hearts and souls have been ripped out of us. We're fifth generation, fourth generation, third generation, don't stand there and watch it be destroyed and say we're doing all we can, because you're not.

FESSLER: Glenn DeJean promised to take her complaints back to the oil company. But that promise did little to appease the residents here who've heard other promises before.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, New Orleans.

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