Grand Isle: Open for Business

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Next up: Oklahoma comes to LSU with elite pitching depth
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Forklifts bearing huge containers of ice and shrimp dodged each other like bumper cars at Dean Blanchard’s seafood dock, and it seemed like the boats would not stop coming.

“I got BP to blame for this,” said Blanchard, pausing from the task of shoveling ice from a hopper to a container, sweat pouring from his graying hair, eyes darting to see what needed to be done next.

It’s difficult to understand, at first, why Blanchard or anyone else would blame BP for a bounty of shrimp, although later explanation fills in the blanks.

Metal lids crashed shut and slammed open, wheels whirred and ice cubes crunched, the runaway business on the dock making its own shrimphonic soundtrack for an island rising on its feet from disaster.

In 2010 and 2011, camera crews from New York to Australia were drawn to Grand Isle – and to Blanchard – like sharks to chum, eager for his irreverent comments about British royalty, as he and others on Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island struggled to survive in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The non-stop gusher 60 miles off the coast resulted in a shutdown of all fishing, dead sea creatures on the island’s beaches and a swelling of its population with armies of workers assigned to clean up what the Macondo Well had done, weeks before Grand Isle’s traditional start of season on the Memorial Day weekend.

This past Memorial Day weekend, the problem for Blanchard was the reverse. There was plenty of shrimp, shrimp that needed icing and tending, a queue of fishermen awaiting payoffs, breakdowns of machinery largely idle for three years, plenty of time for gremlins to do their dirty work.

“I laid off people for three years, I stopped selling to some of my customers for three years,” Blanchard said. “Now, it all hits at once. Things are broken, they’re not fixed, I don’t have enough people.”

This kind of frenzy, which comes from the normal tasks required at Grand Isle’s only shrimp dock, even Blanchard agreed was preferable to that which comes from an environmental disaster unfolding in front of your eyes right in your own back yard, erasing the financial well-being of fishermen, small business owners, and even – in an oft-repeated story told by Blanchard to the television people – some women engaged in a trade arguably older than fishing. So angry was Blanchard that he and some other islanders, along with friends from the mainland, had planned a few years back to burn a Union Jack, but they put the brakes on a potentially embarrassing international incident, after pleas from Louisiana’s U.S. Senate delegation.

Grand Isle was not the only Louisiana community devastated by oil, but it was seen early on as a touchstone, particularly after President Barack Obama paid a visit.

In Lafourche and Terrebonne, the fishing shutdown’s impact was felt hard. Questions about effects on sea life remain unanswered, though there are reports by scientific researchers of genetic damage to fish Nobody in an official government capacity is pointing fingers at BP directly, but shortages of blue crab and more skinny, puny crabs coming up in traps than anyone is comfortable with are cause for concern.

Captains of charter sport fishing boats say they are winning back their customers, but this is the first year many of them say will tell conclusively how well things are going.

On the brighter side, some people did well due to payouts from the oil giant, and work on cleanup crews. But cleanups workers in some cases took sick, the result, some say, of the mixture of oil and dispersants.

The mid-ocean spot where the Deepwater Horizon blew, killing 11 workers and injuring 16 others, is referred to as “The Source.” But Grand Isle, in the eyes of the world, was the spill’s Ground Zero, the place where humans and spilled oil had more opportunity to interact.

In the past, Grand Isle’s fragility – ecologically, as well as economically – was best charted by its fortunes when hurricanes strafe its dunes and batter its camps.

The Deepwater Horizon event, however, did something hurricanes have never done, cutting into spirits, souls and psyches.

On Memorial Day weekend, a swing back to normalcy was evident.

The Starfish Restaurant was oil spill central for uninitiated journalists from around the globe looking for a taste of what “real people” on Grand Isle were saying, thinking and experiencing in 2010 and thereafter. Harried waitresses, busboys and other staff tried to accommodate the barrage of questions as politely as they could, ranging from “how are you coping” to what bars would be best to sample reaction from.

The Starfish was obviously busy this past weekend, but there was less urgency and more of the personal and personable experience long-time habitués have come to know.

“We were so busy, we had a good weekend,” night manager Nickol Santiny said of this year’s Memorial Day. “Our regular tourists have been coming back.”

She and other staff kept busy slinging fried oyster, shrimp and grilled roast beef po-boys, occasional bowls and cups of the place’s signature gumbo and the ever-popular bacon cheeseburgers “never frozen.”

“The BP workers, they weren’t too much on the tips and they were mostly to-go orders,” Santiny said. “What they wanted was not the experience. They were not here for the experience. Our tourist clientele is completely different. They come and have their drinks, tell their fishing stories, what they caught that day. We are here for the customers and that’s why.”

At the island’s western end, where the Gulf of Mexico and Bay Caminada meet, the Grand Isle Speckled Trout Rodeo went off without a hitch at the Bridge Side Marina.

“Yes sir, we did real good,” said manager Buggie Vegas. “The seas were rough, but as far as business, it might be one of the biggest Memorial Day weekends we ever had. The winds were 15 mph but there was sunshine and it was fun. There was a bunch of kids hitting the beach and eating ice cream and, on the bridge people were fishing. It was more like a holiday weekend, like everyone was on vacation. The flow kept on going, not a big rush but it all added up.”

They were also lining up at Meagan’s Snowball Stand, owned by Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle. His honor couldn’t be there himself for much of Sunday, because his son was one of the 11 students graduating from Grand Isle High. The class of 2013 had a majority of their high school years shaped in some way by the disaster. But like the memory of some childhood trauma the spill was absent from discussion at the ceremonies. Valedictorian Rhiannon Ballard spoke of her classmates, not the oil and not the fear that it brought.

Likewise, at the Silver Dollar Motel and Marina, near the island’s Coast Guard station, staff wiping tables and bartops talked Sunday of wishing the Memorial Day weekend and its demands was already over, so that they could return to living their lives in a way that makes maximum use of the island’s charms.

“It’s been back to normal,” said Manager Lisa Rhodes, who now looks forward to accommodating guests for the annual Swollfest Fishing Rodeo, scheduled for this coming weekend. It has proven to be a crowd-pleaser. After that comes the granddaddy of all Grand Isle events: the family-friendly but also occasionally bawdy Tarpon Rodeo. But nobody is projecting about that just yet. Swollfest is more in the immediate future.

Back at Dean Blanchard’s shrimp dock there is still suspicion about what is to come.

“They’re not catching shrimp at the beaches,” he said, referring to the waters immediately adjoining small nearby islands. “They always catch good at the beaches, but the shrimp aren’t there.”

Dean Blanchard, who became a lightening rod for media in search of a sound-bite regarding the Deepwater Horizon aftermath, preps his boat for a fishing outing. Memorial Day at Grand Isle was business as usual for the fisherman, a welcome sight. “I laid off people for three years; I stopped selling to some of my customers for three years. Now, it all hits at once,” he said.