For many Gulf oil spill victims, a glum Christmas

Published 1:30 am Friday, December 24, 2010

Even before the Gulf oil spill, Jennifer Reddick was just getting by, living paycheck to paycheck as she tried to support six children on the $400 a week she made working part time as a deckhand and shrimp net maker.

Then BP’s well blew out off the coast of Louisiana, scaring away tourists and shutting down fishing. Now she has no work and no money to buy her children toys or new clothes this Christmas. Charities are providing what they can, but it’s hard for Reddick to take handouts.

“It was never easy before, but we could make it,” said Reddick, 30, of Buris, a small fishing town along the Mississippi River. “I couldn’t even afford Christmas this year for the kids.”

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For many people along the Gulf Coast, there won’t be much holiday cheer this Christmas.

It’s been more than five months since the well was finally capped after spewing millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf. Many shrimpers and oystermen are catching and selling only a fraction of previous hauls. Business owners who saw a summer of lost revenue are still struggling to pay their bills, and many had to lay off workers to make it through the slow winter months. The Coastal Heritage Society of Louisiana has seen requests for help double. Many are coming from people who had never asked for assistance before.

“Even after Katrina, it wasn’t like this,” said Joannie Hughes, who along with Vickie Perrin has fanned out across the region to deliver Christmas dinners and toys to 112 families.

Perrin said the economic effect is just starting to ripple through communities, from fishermen to grocery stores and restaurants.

“It’s like throwing a pebble into a pond. And we’re only on the first few ripples,” she said.

The Second Harvest Food Bank has also seen a huge increase in families seeking first-time food assistance. Since May, the group has distributed more than 1 million pounds of food in 12 Louisiana parishes, the equivalent of 844,760 meals, to families hurt by the spill, said spokeswoman Leslie Doles.

That’s in addition to the more than 9 million pounds of food delivered to poor people in those parishes during the same months, largely to families who would have needed assistance anyway.

After the spill, many people found temporary jobs on oil cleanup crews, but those operations are winding down. Some who lost money because of the spill are still waiting for their first payment from a $20 billion fund set up by BP to compensate victims, while others have been paid only a fraction of what they claim they lost. The program has paid more than 168,000 claimants some $2.5 billion. More than 467,000 claims have been filed.

Recreational fishing guide Mike Helmer received money from the BP fund to cover his summer of losses, but business is still down more than 50 percent, and he is struggling with whether to accept a final payout from the company that would require him to sign away his right to sue later.

“It’s a gamble because we just don’t know what next year will be like, or the year after that,” Helmer said. “So it’s not a real good bet.”

For him, Christmas just brings more worries. He is trying to keep the holidays as close to normal as possible for his wife and two children, but the stress of not knowing whether he will even be in business in the coming years is wearing him down.

“There’s just a lot of things in the back of my mind,” Helmer said. “We’re not in the poverty line yet, but it’s the future that worries us.”

Isadore Creppel Jr., 57, a shrimper in the town of Venice, has been supporting himself as a fishermen since he was 16. He has weathered hurricanes and economic downturns for years and always bounced back and provided. But now the bills are piling up.

He has been out of work since the spill and said he couldn’t work for BP on cleanup because of his asthma. He received some money from the oil company, “but not nearly what I’m due.”

“I used to always tell myself things will get better, it’ll be better down the road, like a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “But now, it feels like BP has just turned that light off.”

He has been on medication for stress and depression that has only gotten worse with the holidays. There will no toys sent to his grandchildren, no school supplies or dolls.

“We ain’t gonna have a Christmas this year,” he said.

Reddick, the mother of six, said she is trying to keep it together for her children this sad Christmas.

“I don’t want them to see me cry,” she said.