After the Spill: Staying Afloat in Troubled Waters
Business + Economy

After the Spill: Staying Afloat in Troubled Waters

Lance Nacio

The oil spill disaster that wreaked havoc in the Gulf of Mexico this summer may have vanished from the headlines, but an ongoing economic crisis remains for those who live and work in the region. Many have taken huge financial and psychological hits and are now living lives of quiet desperation. Or maybe not so quiet.

As the federal commission investigating the oil spill points fingers at the Obama administration for misrepresenting “the amount and fate of the oil” in the Gulf; as claims czar Ken Feinberg continues his efforts to get payments into the hands of deserving parties; and as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar reviews reports on the deepwater drilling moratorium, The Fiscal Times shares the stories of three Louisiana residents, who represent many, and who are struggling to stay afloat. 

Thought He’d Make a Million
Last winter 40-year-old shrimper Lance Nacio put $30,000 into renovating his boat. The owner of Anna Marie Seafood in Dulac, Nacio generally sold 100,000 to 150,000 pounds of shrimp each year to customers like Whole Foods Market, as well as marquee restaurants in New York and California, and was anticipating a busy 2010 season.

He’d grossed as much as $800,000 in previous years, so it wasn’t out of bounds for him to think he had a shot at hitting the million-dollar mark. “Everyone was anticipating an abundant crop,” says Nacio, a single father of four.

That all changed when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20. After joining the BP Vessels of Opportunity program, Nacio and his five employees began burning oil from the surface and pulling booms across the water. It was his only real income, and fortunately it was somewhat comparable to what he was used to. Before the Gulf waters were closed to fishing, Nacio caught a mere 3,000 pounds of white shrimp. Visions of a million-dollar-mark faded fast.  

Today Nacio’s boat is now idle while he waits to hear how much more work the BP program will offer. He’s using some of the $23,000 in claims money he has collected to continue refurbishing his boat. To earn extra cash, he’s done some alligator fishing, but it doesn’t pay close to what shrimping did.

“I worry about losing a lot of what I worked for so many years to create,” he says. Though his clients have said they’ll continue to support him until he can sell them shrimp again, Nacio is not so sanguine. “They need to fill a void. If a substitute works for them, I’m going to have to have a really good reason for them to come back to me.” 

Landlocked — and Losing Ground
Forest Foytlin, age 37, once worked on the West Series rig making drill pipe, running casing, and assembling equipment near the rig floor. Though the schedule was irregular — he typically worked 14 days straight on the rig, then had 14 days off — it afforded him two weeks of quality time with his wife and six children at home in Rayne, not to mention a steady income. “I loved working offshore,” he says. “And it’s really the only way I can support my family.”

When the six-month deepwater drilling moratorium began in May, he had to choose between taking unemployment or having his hours and pay cut by his company, which contracts out service workers to large oil companies. He chose the latter. He’s now working a $10-an-hour job in a company shop in Broussard, Louisiana, fixing and repairing tools and occasionally installing casing on land rigs.

“Literally my pay went from a little over $3,000 every two weeks to about $800 in the same period,” he says. Foytlin also does odd jobs for extra cash.  

The timing of the oil spill couldn’t have been worse for Foytlin. He and his wife, Cherri, had just emptied their 401(k) and savings accounts to buy a house. Foytlin has now sent his Ford Escort back to the bank and relies on friends to drive him to work. “It was either that, or lose gas or electricity in my house,” he says.

Six months before the spill, the family had built up a $15,000 nest egg. “We weren’t rich, but we damn sure had enough to feed our kids. I wasn’t on Medicaid, no food stamps, no nothing,” says Cherri. “Now, we’re broke. We have hardly anything, but we do get food stamps, so at least we eat.” The family is not eligible for benefits from the BP fund because Foytlin is still employed by his company.

Foytlin awaits the day that the oil moratorium is lifted. His company has assured him that as soon as his rig is up and running, he’ll be out there again, he says. But he worries that government sanctions and safety inspections may hold up the process. Recent remarks from the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management confirm those fears: “Even when the moratorium is lifted, you’re not going to see drilling going on the next day or even the next week,” said Michael Bromwich.

A coworker says that the oil company might even relocate its rig to somewhere off the coast of Africa, but Foytlin says he has no intention of moving. Nor will he quit his line of work: “It’s like asking a doctor to quit and become a chef.” 

A Worry for the Wild Things
For 30 years, Captain Mike Frenette, 54, has owned and operated a fishing lodge and charter fishing business in Venice. An angler himself, Frenette built from scratch a business that offers its customers packages including tackle, rods, reels, lodging and home-cooked meals, the latter courtesy of Frenette’s wife, Lori.

He lost the majority of his 2010 income after his business was shut down in May, and even with the reopening of state waters, the calls and emails have stopped. By this time last year, roughly 45 percent of the upcoming summer season was booked, but Frenette has no new business at all for 2011. He normally employs from four to 15 people in the lodge and on his five charter boats, but this season, literally none are working for him. He has no way to pay them.

“The only way we’re able to keep our head above water is by being engaged with the Vessels of Opportunity program, helping to clean up the spill,” he says, and by dipping into his savings. “Neither of those will last forever.” Though he’s filed claims with the BP compensation fund, so far he’s only received a one-time emergency payment of $600. He’s hopeful more will be forthcoming. A high volume of claims as well as requests for more substantiation in some cases have reportedly contributed to a delay in payments.  

Frenette is also concerned that the actual fishing has totally deteriorated. His lodge was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but he was able to rebuild and operate as usual. The BP oil disaster is different. When the oil spill struck in the springtime, most of the Gulf’s fishing resources — shrimp, crabs, fin fish — were in spawn, so significant numbers of eggs, larvae, and juvenile offspring were likely exposed to the crude oil and dispersant. Even those that survived “will have a strong possibility of [physical] damage, most importantly to their reproductive systems,” Frenette says. “If that resource is gone two, three, four years from now and it depletes to such a point that you can’t produce for your clients — whether it’s recreational or charter fishing, or shrimping, crabbing and oystering — it really doesn’t matter. Everything topples.”