Gulf Town Asks God To Protect Its Livelihoods 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."
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Gulf Town Asks God To Protect Its Livelihoods

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Gulf Town Asks God To Protect Its Livelihoods

Gulf Town Asks God To Protect Its Livelihoods

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Off the coast of Alabama, workers put out inflatable containment booms to keep the oil away from the shore, and the booms washed ashore over the weekend because of rough surf. The state is now working to put them back before the oil reaches its shores.

Governor Bob Riley remains hopeful the pollution can be kept at sea.

Governor BOB RILEY (Republican, Alabama): Our goal is to make sure no oil goes onto the beach or into the estuary.

INSKEEP: That's the hope. But the spill is already affecting local fishing. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: The news Sunday that NOAA that closed much of the gulf to fishing came as colorfully decorated boats lined up in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, for a yearly ritual in the town that calls itself the seafood capital of the state.

Archbishop OSCAR HUGH LIPSCOMB (Archbishop of Mobile, Alabama): Good afternoon, and welcome to St. Margaret's Catholic Church and the 61st annual blessing of the fleet.

ELLIOTT: Since 1949, the archbishop of Mobile has come down to the bayou to pray for a bountiful harvest from the sea and 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, though, the mood was somber with the knowledge that a giant oil slick was just offshore.

Mr. DARVIN BARBOUR: They really need a blessing this year. We do. That oil is going to just tear us up this year.

ELLIOTT: Thirty-six-year-old Darvin Barbour is worried about his hometown.

Mr. BARBOUR: Been here all my life. Getting ready to change, big time, for everybody. No more seafood, and all that. Bunch of people are going to be in dire need.

ELLIOTT: BP has been offering anglers in Bayou la Batre and elsewhere payments of 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.

Mr. BARBOUR: And one person says you need to do this, and then somebody else says you need to do that. We don't know what we need to do. If we knew what we need to know, you know, we could go out and do something. But you don't know.

ELLIOTT: During his blessing, Archbishop Thomas Rodi acknowledges the anxiety, and prays for the responders.

Archbishop THOMAS RODI: 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 the tourism industry. And we ask God to protect our way of life, which is imperiled by this danger of the oil slick.

(Soundbite of bell)

Archbishop RODI: We will now proceed to the boats for the boat parade and the blessing of the boats on the water.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

ELLIOTT: The archbishop stands on the bow of the lead boat, and a few dozen vessels follow out to the mouth of the bayou.

Thirty-five-year-old fisherman Wilson Johnson is in his small, aluminum boat, hoping to get a sprinkle of holy water as he contemplates a murky future.

Mr. WILSON JOHNSON (Fisherman): We've lived on the bayou our whole life. That's all we know. That just - when something does happen and you've got to move away, you can't take it; where would we go? My daddy's daddy's daddy's daddy - that's all we ever did, was seafood.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter, laughter)

ELLIOTT: Melissa Bosarge Nelson also grew up here, her family working in the seafood industry. Now, she's a tour operator.

Ms. MELISSA BOSARGE NELSON (Tour Operator): It's hard to think about, you know. You know, I can't image not being able to get in my boat to go out, you know. We have pleasure boats. We have, you know I mean, 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 so therefore, we're not getting the tourists during the day.

ELLIOTT: She says at least with a hurricane, you can start rebuilding when the storm passes. But this disaster has no end in sight.

Ms. NELSON: Who would think that this would happen? You know, my first thought was, you know, I'm not an engineer, but seems like you would have five or six ways to cut that thing off. You know, who would think that this is going to happen?

ELLIOTT: Nelson and others here wonder whether Bayou La Batre will even have a fleet to bless come next May.

Republican congressman Jo Bonner, of Mobile, says a lot is hanging in the balance.

Representative JO BONNER (Republican, Alabama): Well, this may be one of those life-changing moments that an individual, a community and a region of the country is living through.

ELLIOTT: 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.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama.

(Soundbite of music)


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