In New Orleans, a city well acquainted with the nuances of doom both modern and old-time, the current watchword is firecane. A firecane, at least in the harrowed local imagination, begins when an oil rig located 50 miles offshore blows up, unleashing an unpluggable gush of crude. The primal ooze of former dinosaurs inundates the land and sea. Then, with the onset of hurricane season, lightning serrating from the skies ignites the petro-drenched marshlands, and instead of a storm surge of water, you get a massive Ferris wheel of fire rolling down Rampart Street. That apocalyptic enough for ya, Boudreaux?
When the Saints won the Super Bowl, the often bleary-eyed residents whispered that finally, just maybe, Katrina, last decade’s horror show, was over. That college students might once again guiltlessly bare breasts from Bourbon Street balconies and fill tourist-industry coffers. Now this. Thirty-five million gallons of gunk in the gulf and counting. Blackened pelicans instead of redfish. A man-made disaster to make levee failure seem like a pile of tumbled Lego blocks.
“No, I don’t think we’re cursed,” said Larry Powell, a history professor at Tulane. “But these two things so close together, it does make you wonder. Mostly I’m just numb.”
“How much do they expect us to take?” asked Dr. John, a.k.a. Mac Rebennack, who was reached at his home near Carrollton. Rebennack sounded weary, “from dealing with this shit,” but still full of fight. He’d heard a million stories about the spill, real and imagined; everyone had. “The inside information,” he said, “is guys on the rig saw rubber and shit, stuff from the blowout protector, coming to the surface back in late February, early March. They were told to keep drilling. Drill, baby, drill. Kill, baby, kill. There ain’t no place in this country that’s been attacked like Louisiana. Forty percent of our coast has been destroyed, washed away. They’re trying to get the rest, the fuckers. The marshes are dead. Dead from greed. When you’re a coon-ass kind, you eat coon, shrimp, all that. What are you going to eat now? These scumbags are trying to starve us out.”
Rebennack said he voted for Obama but was getting “pissed as a motherfucker” about the way the spill has been handled. “The thing is a damn crime scene. Who ever heard of the perpetrators getting to run their own crime scene?”
This September, over in Morgan City, 85 miles west on old Highway 90, they’ll be holding the Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival, which bills itself as “the state’s oldest chartered harvest festival,” which is fitting, since shrimping and oil drilling—however contradictory the two activities—have long been the only ways to make a decent living for many in the bayous.
No word on whether they are planning to change the name to the Shrimp in Petroleum Festival, but the paradigm shift in the way life has been lived in these quarters is well under way. A couple weeks back, one of the last shrimp boats came in, carrying a spindly catch of “120s,” for 120 shrimp to the pound, things so itty-bitty they are barely worth sticking in a po’ boy sandwich. Now all the boats are out of the water, maybe for generations, to protect the hulls from the incoming slime. In other times some of these fishermen could go out and work on the rigs, but that is off the table as Governor Bobby Jindal ties himself in ideological knots trying to balance his tea-party leanings with calls for increased federal intervention and dismay over the national moratorium against deepwater drilling, which he rightly says will have a “severe economic impact” on the state.
“They got us in a box,” says Dr. John, his unhappiness beyond the remedy of any voodoo queen.