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Troubled waters

With Katrina still a recent memory, Gulf Coast communities find the backbone of their economies threatened by BP's ongoing oil spill

Troubled waters

(Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley/U.S. Coast Guard/AP)

From a quiet dock on the bayou behind his home in Bay St. Louis, Miss., Pastor Jean Larroux watched the still water and waited. Two weeks after an oil rig exploded 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 people, officials estimated the sunken rig was gushing some 210,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf waters each day. Authorities gave coastal communities along the Mississippi and Louisiana shores a stark warning: The massive spill could create the worst environmental disaster in the nation's history.

While residents along the wearied coastline waited to see if the oil would pollute the waters critical to the region's extensive fishing industry, Larroux described the potential fallout for towns like Bay St. Louis. "The only thing we've got is tourism and seafood," he said. "And if that goes, this place will be a ghost town."

It wouldn't be the first time: Bay St. Louis was one of the hardest hit areas when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005. Larroux-then a resident of Memphis-moved back to his hometown to become pastor of Lagniappe Presbyterian Church in Bay St. Louis. The church leaders recruited a huge network of volunteers to help rebuild homes destroyed by the hurricane. Larroux said the church was ready to help support efforts to clean up again if the oil soaks their shores.

Workers for oil giant BP-the company that leased the destroyed rig-labored furiously to try to mitigate the damage: Nearly two weeks after the rig sank, they managed to cap one of three leaks at the well. They planned to install a 100-ton box to funnel oil into a drilling rig.

Officials also said they would drill a relief well to close off the flow of oil, a process that could take two to three months and cost $100 million.

Immediate efforts focused on placing booms to absorb oil near the shorelines and dumping massive amounts of chemicals into the water to break up the oil. Workers dumped some 60,000 gallons of dispersants in the water each day, using C-130 planes and robots carrying the chemicals 5,000 feet deep to the sea floor. The chemicals appeared to slow the oil's flow to shore, leaving experts guessing about the final extent of the damage.

While BP officials tried to control damage to the waters, they also worked to control damage to their image. Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, said BP officials never provided plans for how they would protect the state's coast from an oil spill. When top BP executives met with members of Congress, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said there would be a "blistering, scalding indictment" of the practices of the oil industry. President Obama halted all new oil drilling but faced criticism of his own for taking over a week to label the spill as having "national significance."

For now, it's the local significance that has Gulf Coasters worried. Officials shut down fishing in federal waters from the Mississippi River to the Florida Panhandle during the middle of the prime spring season, and fishermen worried conditions would grow worse.

Back in Bay St. Louis, Larroux said damage to the fishing and tourism industries reaches every part of coastal life. "The CPA is doing the taxes for the doctor who is seeing the patients who work at Wal-Mart whose husbands are working on shrimp boats," he said. "And the Wal-Mart worker has a job for the tourists coming to town to buy suntan lotion and beer."

The pastor said the prospect of enduring another deep blow after years of grueling hurricane recovery was hard for the members of his church to contemplate: "Put us somewhere between Job chapter 3 and 40."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.