Gulf Business Owners Assess BP, Government Progress

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BP is bringing in a new CEO; an oil cap has apparently stopped the oil leaking into the Gul of Mexico; and oil that has already leaked into the Gulf may be dissolving more quickly than expected. Tell Me More has been speaking with Gulf residents since the first days of the oil spill, and host Michel Martin checks back in with three of them to see how they have been doing…and how they view the latest news. She speaks with Mike Frenette, owner of the Red Fish Lodge and a charter boat company in Venice, Louisiana; Eddie Painter, the pastor of Barataria Baptist Church and a commercial crabber; and with Brenda Dardar-Robichaux who recently completed her term as chief of the United Houma Nation, a native American tribe with roots on the Gulf Coast going back many generations.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the music and rhymes of Ana Tijoux. Raised in France to Chilean parents, she is adding her own unique flavor to the world of hip hop. We'll visit with her in just a few minutes.

But first, with word of new leadership at the oil company BP and evidence that leaked oil in the Gulf of Mexico may be dissolving more quickly than expected, we decided we wanted to check in with some of the residents of the Gulf Coast with whom we've been speaking in the three and a half months since the explosion that started it all.

A tight-fitting containment cap has apparently stopped oil seepage into the Gulf. And radar images reportedly show that oil patches are breaking down quickly in the Gulf's warm waters. It's good news for BP, which will replace current CEO Tony Hayward with Robert Dudley on October 1st. Dudley grew up in Mississippi and puts a new face and an American accent on the company as it works to restore not just the Gulf, but the fractured lives of many of its residents.

Here's Dudley speaking yesterday on NPR's MORNING EDITION.

Mr. ROBERT DUDLEY (Incoming BP CEO): Our success and our ability to do business in the United States I think depends on our corporate response and follow through on this. And we have some very large commitments that we intend to keep in America.

MARTIN: We wanted to get a Gulf's eye view of how things are going so we've reached out once again to Mike Frenette. He owns the Red Fish Lodge and operates a charter boat company in Venice, Louisiana. We've also called Eddie Painter, the pastor of Barataria Baptist Church. He's also a commercial crabber. And Brenda Dardar-Robichaux who just recently completed her term as principal chief of the United Houma Nation. That's the Native American tribe with roots on the Gulf Coast going back many generations. Welcome back to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. BRENDA DARDAR-ROBICHAUX (Former Principal Chief, United Houma Nation): Thank you for having me.

Reverend EDDIE PAINTER (Barataria Baptist Church): Thank you for the opportunity.

Mr. MIKE FRENETTE (Owner, Red Fish Lodge): Thank you for having us today.

MARTIN: So before we jump into everyday life, I just wanted to ask how you all are responding to the news that there's this changing of the guard at BP. That Tony Hayward is out and Robert Dudley is in. So I wanted to ask, does this matter Mike?

Mr. FRENETTE: Personally, it doesn't matter to me who's going to be the CEO or who's going to be guiding the direction of the continued cleanup of this operation. You know, what I really have concern about is especially the last few days we obviously have seen that they've contained the leak at the site. But all of a sudden it seems to paint a picture that everything is fine and dandy. And that's quite the opposite. Everything isn't fine and dandy.

MARTIN: Okay, Mike, I want to hear more about that and what you're seeing and what the effects are. Let me just bring in the other two guests and just hear what they have to say about this. Pastor Eddie, what about you? Does this leadership change at BP do anything for you?

Mr. PAINTER: I think that actually we're so far removed from that point of leadership that it doesn't. The people that we're having to deal with, I really don't think that's going to make a lot of difference.

MARTIN: Chief, what about you?

Ms. DARDAR-ROBICHAUX: We remain optimistic that this will make a change. He is from the Gulf Coast and so hopefully he can just stand the struggles that we're facing to recover from this oil spill and the great impact it's had on our people and communities. I feel that Mr. Hayward was totally out of touch with what was actually happening here.

MARTIN: And, chief, could you pick up on Mike's point. Mike's concern is that people will now start to think it's all taken care of and it's not. First of all, I'd like to ask if you share that concern. And, also, tell me a little bit more about you're seeing and how things are in your area.

Ms. DARDAR-ROBICHAUX: We're already starting to see BP pull back and so that is a concern of ours. I feel that they are using the cap as a public relations opportunity to be able to pull back, that things are not as bad as what we initially thought it would be. But it certainly is. We're seeing firsthand the devastating impacts on our communities and they are pulling back already.

With the Vessels of Opportunities program, they're not hiring any new vessels. And even those that were hired, they're putting them in a standing hold position, as well as the payment checks that were coming out for the fishermen and others who had lost their income are being pulled back as well. And so our concern is they are not going to follow through with their commitment to make our community whole again.

MARTIN: When you say pulling back, what do you mean? You're saying that boats not as many boats are going out, but obviously I don't speak for them. But my working assumption might be that if there's no oil on the surface, there's nothing for those boats to do. I mean how has this explained to the community and what are they saying and how do you respond to whatever it is they're saying?

Ms. DARDAR-ROBICHAUX: Right. They're saying that they're not seeing as much on the surface, but we know that it's still out there and there is still some on the surface. There's still lots of work that needs to be done in cleaning up this spill. But as I said, they're using not seeing anything on the surface as an opportunity to start pulling back on the actual work that needs to be done.

MARTIN: Pastor Eddie, what about you?

Mr. PAINTER: In our area, they are saying that they're going to scale back by as much as 87 percent on the number of boats. And mine is one of the boats that's been working as well. And the thing is what's frustrating is nobody seems to know anything. There's no reason or explanation or anybody that you can talk to. And that's part of the biggest frustration is it feels like, you know, we're just being completely left out of the loop.

MARTIN: And, Mike, what about you? I know you, in addition to the Red Fish Lodge, you also operate the charter boat company. Have any of your boats been pressed into service?

Mr. FRENETTE: Actually, I have five boats and only two of them have been brought into service and one of them just recently in the last three weeks. But what we're highly concerned about is a lot of the oil that we have seen in the last two to three weeks is oil that's coming ashore from underneath the surface. And then the next day, as the tide comes in, it rolls the oil up on the beach. The tide goes out and now your beach is inundated with oil.

So we obviously have some problems and grave concerns to what's happening below the surface. And then out of sight, out of mind perception is exactly what you just alluded to a few minutes ago that, you know, that doesn't appear to be as much oil out on the surface. Well, that's actually correct. There isn't as much oil on the surface, but that doesn't mean that there's not oil below the surface. There's plenty, plenty of oil that are below the surface that's going to cause us future complications for quite some time.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're checking in with three residents of the Gulf to hear how their lives have been affected and what their perceptions are about how the cleanup effort is going in the three-plus months since that major oil spill in the Gulf began.

We're speaking with Mike Frenette. He's a business owner. He owns the Red Fish Lodge and he operates a charter boat company in Venice, Louisiana. Brenda Dardar-Robichaux, she just completed her term as principal chief of the United Houma Nation. And Eddie Painter, he's a pastor and commercial crabber.

When we spoke to each of you last, a lot of times we talked some about just how emotionally people are holding up through all this. So can I do a check in with you on that? How do you think people are holding up? Pastor Eddie, will you start?

Mr. PAINTER: Well, you know, there's been a lot of frustration and a lot of that really stems from the uncertainty. Things are not nearly as optimistic today as they were yesterday because, you know, last night we got the news that there was going to be possibly 87 percent of the Vessels of Opportunity in our area that they're fixing to stop them from working. It feels like everybody is about to say, oh well, we've got it done now. And the community is really wondering, well, where does that leave us? And a lot of people are really uneasy about that.

MARTIN: How are people paying their bills, Pastor Eddie? How are people just getting the basics? And school is also about to start. People have to start buying school clothes and things.

Mr. PAINTER: Well, right now, with a lot of people working for the spill, our mayor in our community has done a tremendous job of getting people to work with the spill. And so, for the moment, it created a small boom, you know. And so with the economy, as far as things, has done pretty well right now. But, you know, we're waiting for the other shoe to fall because we know that's artificial and it looks like it's about to come to an end.

MARTIN: I see. Chief, what about you? When we last talked, you talked about the kids and you were working at a summer camp for kids from the tribe and one of the things you were seeing with the kids is a sense of anxiety about the future and what are you seeing now? How are your people holding up?

Ms. DARDAR-ROBICHAUX: They're not doing very well. The kids have great concern about their future and so do we. At another leadership camp that we held recently, we discussed the oil spill and its effects on our community. And so they had heard the president's address to the nation in which he did mention tribes that tribes that have a seat at the table. And so they were very encouraged by that because we've never had that before.

And so that's quite refreshing because our community is suffering and we're trying to deal with this on a daily basis. But, you know, at our recent leadership camp I felt that I needed to apologize to our children. Right now, we're not able to provide for them the luxuries and the blessings that we had. They may not ever be able to experience that. The love that we have for being out on the water and fishing and the love of our culture and being able to pass on those traditions to them.

Our very existence is in jeopardy right now. And so I felt the need to apologize to them for what we've done as a people and as a nation that we didn't hold the oil and gas industry accountable. That we didn't put standards in place that would prevent this from happening.

MARTIN: Mike, what are you seeing about how, you know, your employees, your people in your company, how are people doing? People in your community your neighbors?

Mr. FRENETTE: You know, it's a quite difficult situation because quite honestly, if it wouldn't be for the Vessel of Opportunity, right now we'd have absolutely zero cash income. Our business has stopped completely since the accident. To be honest with you, I've had three requests for information in reference to our lodge, in reference to fishing since the accident, where on a normal day, a slow day would be 15 requests and a good day would be about 45 to 50 requests. And we're absolutely getting zero, so...

It took me 29 years to get the business to the level that it's in now. And our industry is a very strong industry. We've developed this to be the number one sport fishing destination in the country, one of the top five in the world. And we basically are zeroed out right now. And it's going to take a long time to recover that. And if it wouldn't be for the Vessel of Opportunity, then we wouldn't have any type of cash flow. So if that goes away right now, then we are going to be in a very, very, very difficult financial struggle.

MARTIN: Have you had to lay people off?

Mr. FRENETTE: Yes. Three out of five.

MARTIN: You've had to lay off three out of five of your employees?

Mr. FRENETTE: That's correct.

MARTIN: I sense you don't want to dwell on this, but how hard was that?

Mr. FRENETTE: Well, it's very hard. And plus, got captains that work for me on a part time basis that work for me very heavily during the spring and summer that I wasn't able to produce work for them this year. So if you put that into account, that's really not a layoff, it's just that we weren't able to rehire them for this year.

MARTIN: Yeah, but it's hard to make that phone call, you know, to say, yeah.

Mr. FRENETTE: Oh, sure, it's hard. It's hard for everybody. I mean, you know, we're very residual and very strong-willed people from this area. We've gone through a lot of tragedies with a hurricane is one thing, but this was a manmade disaster. And we have to keep all that into focus as we move forward with the cleanup and the recovery process that not only the commercial fisherman but the charter and guides are not left out of the picture. Because this is the livelihoods and the way of life that could be devastated for years to come. And, you know, it's extremely unfortunate.

MARTIN: May I get your perspective on how you think your state government, the Obama administration, how they're all responding to this? In the early days and weeks of the spill, there were voices criticizing the Obama administration for being slow to react. Last month he had a Oval Office address to address the crisis. I think it was his first Oval Office address since taking the presidency. I'll just play a short clip of what he had to say. Here it is.

President BARACK OBAMA: The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic. One that we will be fighting for months and even years. But make no mistake, we will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long as it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever is necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy.

MARTIN: So I'd like to ask each of you how you feel about the response that the government is making to this crisis. Pastor Eddie, I'll start with you. How do you feel the government's doing in responding to this?

Mr. PAINTER: I'll say we don't have a lot of confidence in it. And I want to be quick to say that it's not about whether it's a Democratic or a Republican, we just haven't had a lot of success with the government being real effective here anyway with the disasters in the past. We lost our home to Ike in '08. And with my house gutted to the studs, FEMA said my house was livable.

And if it hadn't been for the people in the local church in our community, my family would've been left homeless, depending on the government. And as far as seeing the federal government actually involved in this, in our community, I don't see it. Our governor has been at the forefront, but from a federal level, I hear a lot of talk but I don't see much action.

MARTIN: What should they be doing that they're not doing?

Mr. PAINTER: One thing would be the communication. It seems like any time that we want information to kind of keep people in the loop and know what's going on, that we're shut out. Well, you know, I believe that would belay a lot of fears or at least help people to have a realistic picture of what to expect if they have the information. We don't need to just hear it if they think they can give us something good. We need to know what's going on.

MARTIN: Chief Brenda, how about you? I should mention that the United Houma Nation are a state recognized tribe, they're not a federally recognized tribe. I don't know whether that matters to the question I'm going to ask you, but I was asking, how are people feeling about the response of their elected officials?

Ms. DARDAR-ROUBICHAUX: We feel on a state level that the governor is not doing adequate work. We feel that what he's proposing is not for the good of all the people in the community and especially will have long-term effects that will be detrimental. This proposal that he had in place to put rocks in the passes around Grand Isle at Caminada and Barataria Pass, we feel would really do more harm than good.

And so, I have great concerns that he's using this as a platform to boost his career and not making decisions that's for the good of all - currently and in the long term.

MARTIN: You're talking about Governor Bobby Jindal.

Ms. DARDAR-ROUBICHAUX: Correct.

MARTIN: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.

Ms. DARDAR-ROUBICHAUX: Correct.

MARTIN: Mike Frenette, what's your take on this? What is your evaluation of the work that's being done by elected officials and their response at whatever level?

Mr. FRENETTE: Well, I think the local officials have done a very good job keeping this issue in the forefront. And as far as federal entities, I think that the United States Coast Guard has done a great job down here, especially in South Plaquemines as far as being active and being proactive on everything.

As far as if you want to call it from the White House, I'm not so sure what I could add to that other than the fact that, you know, obviously the president's statement that you replayed just a few minutes ago, lets make sure that he holds that true and that he makes sure that everything is followed up among, you know, upon for the next few months, as well as the next few years because we're going to have significant problems. And, you know, that was his words. Let's make sure that those words are followed up with action.

MARTIN: Do you feel in your heart of hearts that your lives will be made whole? That we'll be able to look back on this as a difficult time, but that in the end things will be restored? Or are you not so confident of that? Chief, may I ask you that question first?

Ms. DARDAR-ROUBICHAUX: I'd love to be able to tell you in all confidence, yes, that I feel we will recover and be whole again, but I'd be lying if I did say that. I can only hope and pray that we are, for our sake and for our kids' sake.

MARTIN: I hear the emotion in your voice. And thank you for that. Pastor Eddie Painter, what about you? Do you what do you think?

Mr. PAINTER: I really have the sense from our community that nobody thinks that things are going to be the same. I don't see a sense of optimism here for the long term for things coming back to the way they were.

MARTIN: Mike, what about you? I'll give you the last word? Where are you right now? Do you feel that you'll be able to get things back to where they were?

Mr. FRENETTE: I'm sure it will happen at some point. But, you know, is that going to be 10 years down the road where it really doesn't make any sense for myself to continue in the business for 10 years to try to reestablish to that degree? But, you know, it's a very tough question and I'm not so certain that it's a question that anybody could really give a definitive answer at this point.

MARTIN: Mike Frenette operates a charter boat company and owns the Red Fish Lodge in Venice, Louisiana. He joined us on the line from his office. Also with us is Eddie Painter, the pastor of Barataria Baptist Church. He's also a commercial crabber. And he was with us from Lafitte, Louisiana. Also with us, Brenda Dardar-Roubichaux. She just completed her term as principal chief of the United Houma Nation. She joined us from New Orleans. I thank you all so much for speaking with us. I do hope we'll keep in touch.

Mr. PAINTER: Thank you for having us.

Ms. DARDAR-ROUBICHAUX: Thank you.

Mr. FRENETTE: Thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity.

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