Four hurricanes in five years and an oil disaster to boot have pushed southern Louisiana to the brink. But during and after each crisis, organizations and individuals have stepped forward to contribute to the recovery and betterment of the Gulf Coast. In our latest series, known as "Profiles in Resilience", we'll highlight some of these heroes and the work that they do in coastal Louisiana.
Today we begin with Patty Whitney, the Executive Assistant and Community Organizer for Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing (BISCO). Born and raised in Houma, Ms. Whitney has been involved with BISCO for nearly two decades.
Shortly before the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we asked Patty for her thoughts on the meaning of resilience, the challenges that bayou communities face, and how the effects of the recent oil spill disaster compare with those of hurricanes. Here’s what she had to say.
Tell us about the work that you and BISCO do.
BISCO (Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing) is a faith-based nonprofit working in the coastal parishes of Terrebonne and Lafourche in southeastern Louisiana. BISCO works at the grassroots with local residents to help them with capacity building and community action on local concerns. We are a multi-faith, multi-race, multi-issue organization, and we have worked in the bayous since Hurricane Andrew.
Our efforts have exposed long-held patterns of racism, poverty, and social injustice in the region. Since that time, BISCO has had to re-design the traditional community organizing models to address immediate survival needs and long-term initiatives for our residents and communities. We have also pushed for systemic changes to enhance our ability to prepare for, respond to and recover from multiple disasters in a relatively short period of time. Our communities were impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008, and again by the BP oil drilling disaster in 2010.
What does resilience mean to you?
To me, resilience means “the ability to bounce back.” For generations, bayou people have been masters of resilience. In order to understand the patterns that have led us to the situations we face today, as well as the strategies needed for progress and the continued protection of our culture, it is critically important for one to be aware of the unique history of the bayou communities.
Our roots are as rich as they are varied: Native Americans, African slaves, exiles from Acadia (Cajuns), “Isleños” from the Canary Islands, Croatians, Filipinos, and Germans. We are the descendants of people who suffered arduous circumstances to build their homes in this beautiful but dynamic delta, the product of the largest river on the North American continent. Many of our ancestors settled here hundreds of years ago, and most people along the bayous can boast that they live within a hundred miles of where their ancestors have resided for five or more generations. We are the least transient population in the country. We are survivors, even when the odds are stacked against us. We are resilient.
What are the major issues facing bayou communities and what can and should be done to best address them?
Because we are people whose history is that of being kicked out, shoved out, sold out, starved out, or coerced out of multiple other parts of the world, patterns have developed here where people are hesitant to voice opposition to authority. We tend to lead simple, sometimes naïve, lives that are closely tied to the natural world around us. We have high illiteracy and poverty rates. We are sometimes content with just getting enough to get by. We work hard. We like to have fun. We believe faith is important.
Open-air exhibit: In 2005, the Los Isleños Museum, chronicling two centuries of life in southern Louisiana, had its front torn off by a falling tree during Hurricane Katrina. The structure was condemned and demolished shortly after the storm. Five years on, the museum complex has not been rebuilt (Source: NPR)
We fit the pattern of a community that is vulnerable to environmental injustice. That is what has happened to us. Through generations, others have sought to benefit from the natural resources of this beautiful ecosystem, and we have kept silent, thinking we were being helped with the provision of jobs and industry, not realizing that the hands that were feeding us were feeding us poison. The land and sea have sustained us for generations, but these have been destroyed, and we have been powerless or voiceless to stop its impending destruction.
THE major issue facing coastal Louisiana today is severe coastal land loss and the dangers inherent therein. The rapid rate of subsidence and coastal erosion can be directly attributed to the actions of man. This has included dredging oilfield pipeline canals through fragile wetlands, cutting down trees in our swamps and marshes, damming and leveeing off the Mississippi River, and removing supportive fossil fuels from beneath our silted, mushy soils. Destructive industrial, maritime and forestry practices, along with flawed bureaucratic systems of permitting and enforcement, have wreaked havoc on our fragile ecosystem.
These actions have put our communities in great jeopardy of disappearing from the face of the Earth within a very short span of time. In the meantime, our populations are at greater risk for damage from storms and rising seas. We have been struggling to rebound over and over, after every disaster, and we have been finding it progressively more difficult to bounce back after each catastrophic event. And then came the gusher in the Gulf…
Leaping into the unknown: Repeating a timeless summer ritual, young residents of Chauvin, Louisiana dive into Bayou Petit Caillou for an afternoon swim. The cadence of life in the region has been interrupted by a succession of disasters, causing some to wonder whether the children of this generation will be the last to experience lives so interconnected with the wetlands and waterways of coastal Louisiana (Source: The New York Times)
The people of the Gulf Coast have become experts at disasters. We have developed plans and strategies across the coast for emergency preparedness and response, for hurricane recovery and protection. We have modified, codified and rectified. People from the top government officials to the most unheralded bayou residents know things about emergencies that most average Americans never even think about. We thought we were prepared, and we were (sort of) — for a hurricane!
We were not and are not prepared for a catastrophic technological disaster that impacts an entire ecosystem. We are not prepared for a disaster that may change almost overnight the entire way of life we know and love across the region. We are not prepared to cope with the significant loss of the very fabric of who we are as a community forever.
How does this oil spill compare to damage and disaster from hurricanes?
We are part of the ecosystem. Our communities, our cultures and our histories are all part of the harmonic balance that has sustained us for generations. We are part of this circle. When the circle is damaged or destroyed, we are damaged or destroyed. If it cannot be fixed, we cannot be fixed. This is terrifying! This is the big difference between hurricanes and this oil drilling disaster. As hard as it gets sometimes to recover from a hurricane, there is always the resilient thought that, “We can bounce back from this.” That attitude is not prevalent right now in the Gulf.
Are we resilient? Can we bounce back? Before this catastrophe, I would have said an unequivocal “Yes.” Now? Maybe, I’m not so sure.