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06.20.10

BP Makes Friends

The world may have turned against the oil giant, but in one city near the Gulf spill cleanup, The Daily Beast’s Rebecca Dana finds a vibrant temporary economy and an oddly peaceful cultural hash in the bayou heat.

The world may have turned against the oil giant, but in one city near the Gulf spill cleanup, The Daily Beast’s Rebecca Dana finds a vibrant temporary economy and oddly peaceful cultural hash in the bayou heat.

Down in Houma, Louisiana, a charmless city an hour’s drive from one of the biggest oil spill cleanup operations, the BP boys like to tease the Hooters girls.

“Last night we had a big group come in, British ones,” said Christi Nezzio, a baby-faced 17-year-old hostess at the restaurant who has a sweet, lolling Southern twang. “We were trying to take down their information, and they kept saying, ‘Speak English!’”

Her colleagues, in Hooters trademark tank tops and hot pants, all either nodded or laughed. In the two months since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, sending millions of barrels of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, doing untold long-term environmental damage and crippling the region’s vital fishing industry, every waitress in Houma has endured some harmless flirtation with a BP employee.

“It’s a serious one-horse town,” said a member of the video team covering the oil spill for BP. “When people hear you’re working for BP, they’re not going to strike up many conversations.”

There are thousands of them here along the coastline, ranging in station from day laborers to engineers, locals to Londoners in expensive suits. They have filled hotels that once were half-empty and jammed into tiny family-owned seafood shacks, creating a vibrant temporary economy and an oddly peaceful cultural hash. Red State rednecks now dine alongside Seattle-based environmental workers, D.C. bureaucrats, and tweedy Brits—all of them sweltering in the deep, wet, bayou heat.

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While a series of recent executive gaffes, evasions, and misadventures have turned most of the rest of the world against the oil giant, here in Houma (pronounced “home-ah”), BP has made friends. In part, that’s because the company is acrobatically sustaining the entire coastal economy for the time being, hiring out-of-work fishermen to search for tar balls and dead birds. And in part, it’s because the residents of southern Louisiana are among the only people with a clear view of the cleanup effort’s human face.

That’s not to say everyone loves them. Many hate them, less for the public relations missteps than the dark reality of the spill itself. “It’s starting to affect me a lot,” said Al Mahler (“like Gustav”), the owner of Big Al’s Seafood Restaurant, the most popular dinner spot in Houma. The price of oysters has gone up 40 percent since the spill, and the price of shrimp has doubled, he said. “It’s going to hit everybody here, from the guy working on the platform down to the man cutting your hair.”

On Sunday afternoon, Mahler sat at his own bar, waiting for a call from his crawfish supplier. His skin was tan and leathery from years in the sun; he pointed to two scabs on his face: “skin cancer.” He’d already rebuilt Big Al’s after Katrina, already fought his way back after that tragedy just to run smack into this one. “Now what?” He shrugged.

For now, and for as long as BP is in crisis mode in the Gulf, Big Al’s is bustling. “Everyone wants to experience Louisiana culture,” said Madeline Lowe, the nearby Wyndham hotel’s 22-year-old desk clerk. “They all want to go have some seafood while you can still eat it.” So she sends them there.

Lowe has braces, a quick smile, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the cleanup operation from the many hours she spends on the phone with BP operations people. She personally knows the company’s “logistics department” head, who once lost his temper with her after a booking snafu left him momentarily room-less. “He can be feisty sometimes,” she said, “but now he and I are like best friends.”

She feels for the BP employees, out on the water in 115-degree temperatures, wearing Tyvex suits to protect them from the oil. “They work for 20 minutes and then rest for 40,” she said, “and for every one bottle of Gatorade they drink, they’re required to drink two bottles of water.” They come and tell her these rules during their rare down time, in between 12-hour shifts, when they hang out in the antiseptic Wyndham lobby, drinking complimentary orange juice and resting on the shellacked couches.

Most of the hotels in Houma are on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, on a bleak tract that spans a few miles distance between strip malls. Across the street from the Wyndham is the Ramada Inn where BP CEO Tony Hayward reportedly set up shop in the days after the oil spill (although Michelle at the front desk denies he was ever there and asks that all urgent faxes and death threats be redirected to wherever he is now). Down the street a ways is the Holiday Inn where Hayward actually stayed, according to a young woman at the front desk there. “He was nice,” she said before her colleague reminded her that the manager had said no talking to the press. “They’re all nice.”

Outside in the parking lot, two BP employees made their way to a gleaming rented SUV. They were nice, too. Tim and Keith were members of a video team covering the oil spill for BP, following executives around to press conferences and recording their carefully planned remarks, presumably for some future history that omits all discussion of “ small people” and the J.P. Morgan Asset Management yacht race and Tony Hayward’s humble wish just to get his life back.

Tim, a director from Britain’s World TV, was on his second tour of duty in the region after coming for three weeks last month. He wore reflective sunglasses and an Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt. “It’s a serious one-horse town,” he said. Everyone had been friendly, but they hadn’t done much socializing. “When people hear you’re working for BP, they’re not going to strike up many conversations,” he said. Keith had gone to Lutheran services last week and found a pleasant enough crowd there. “Although one lady was worried about her seafood company, so I did hear about that for a while.”

Many of the people camping out in Houma actually work an hour southwest, in the coastal town of Cocodrie, where BP has set up one of 17 command centers for its spill cleanup operation. About 750 people work out of the center, which is unmarked and barely noticeable in the summer haze. Surrounding it are trailers and double-wides, hoisted up on wooden stilts to help them weather hurricane season. John Miller, a Coast Guard reservist, arrived here last week and has been working 18-hour days pretty consistently since.

“Last night, I went to this terrific seafood place and just wanted a plate of crawfish,” he said. The man who provides the restaurant with his crawfish came in, sat down with him, and unloaded about the spill. “He wasn’t quoting Pierre Bourdeau as he was explaining his feelings to me, but he was getting emotional, passionate,” said Miller, who also happens to be an English professor in Virginia and who references a “Marxist definition of culture as tied to what you do for a living” more than the average military reservist.

“The point was that the locus of these people’s cultural identity is vulnerable,” he said. “At the end of it, the guy bought me a beer.”

These little triumphs of communication in Houma may help lighten the mood, but they also have a troublingly hollow feel. The restaurants will not always be filled with erudite Coast Guard reservists. The hotels will not be overbooked for long.

“What happens when BP goes away?” said Lowe, while printing maps for her guests at the Wyndham hotel desk. “Will they—I guess, no, they won’t leave us a mess to clean up after them.”

Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.