10:00pm

Mon November 29, 2010
The Disappearing Coast

BP Oil Well Capped, But Trauma Still Flowing

Originally published on Tue November 30, 2010 4:40 am

These are hard times in the hard-working town of Bayou La Batre, Ala. It's known as the state's seafood capital -- and it struggled to get back in business after Hurricane Karina.

But once again, the processing plants and shrimp boats lining the bayou are mostly idle after the BP oil spill.

So when Feed the Children trucks recently arrived at the community center, the turnout was huge. About a dozen volunteers worked quickly handing out big cartons packed with food and household goods. Residents had to sign up in advance, so some were reluctantly turned away.

"We're out. We only had 800 cards and 800 boxes of groceries," a volunteer gently tells those without tickets for the day's goods. "I'm sorry, we just don't have any more."

No one makes a scene. This is not a place where asking for help comes easily.

"It almost makes you not even want to walk up and ask," says Lena Hofer, 25. "Because of how many times I've had to do this, it's really hard when they send you away after you do, especially when you need it like I do. I'm about to cry. It's hard."

The red circles around Hofer's blue eyes and frail frame are evidence of the toll from the spill.

"I'm a homemaker," she laughs, as if she no longer believes it. "My husband was a shrimper. It's bad. It's put us in a really bad spot."

"We are very, very close on the edge of losing everything," says Aaron Hofer, Lena's husband, holding back tears. "But, you know, God feeds the birds. How much more does he love us? I have to tell myself that, like, 100 times a day."

Lost Everything But Their Children

Aaron and Lena Hofer have been on a downward spiral since the spring. And they are not alone. Now, seven months after BP's oil well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, researchers say more than one-third of coastal residents are experiencing symptoms of trauma.

Aaron, 27, is a fourth-generation shrimper who lost the lucrative summer season to the BP oil spill. Now the shop where he worked part time picking crab for cash has closed down. The Hofers can no longer pay the rent, have signed up for food stamps, and are bouncing from home to home, staying with relatives.

"It's taken a toll on us. We've split up twice since this happened," Lena says. "We're just now starting to talk and get back together. Because we've lost our place to live, we have lost our vehicle, we have lost our phones."

They've lost everything but their children.

"I have a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old," says Lena. "They're both boys, and they're the love of my life."

Talking about her boys, Justin and Jordan, puts a smile on Lena's face.

"They make me happier than anybody," she says. "Whenever I'm down about everything that's going on, I just look at them and know that I'll be all right as long as they're still in my life."

The pain is raw in Aaron Hofer when he talks about his boys.

"If somebody takes my kids because I can't help myself -- I just, I don't know," he says. "It's hard to think about things like that."

He and the boys climb on a play set at a public park just across the street from the Gulf where he once made his living.

Aaron worked on his uncle's shrimp boat. They had a good week when the waters reopened in the fall, but then broke a winch that hauls in the nets. Aaron says the game's over for this year.

"I lost my job, the boat's broke down," he says. "I'm homeless, my wife is living with my mother-in-law, and I'm living on the boat."

Aaron tenderly looks at his children giggling around the playground. He says they don't understand what's going on.

"They constantly ask, 'Why we got to stay with Aunt Mimmy? Why do we have to stay with G-granny? Why do we have to stay with Maw Maw? Are we going to Billy's house?' You know. 'I want to go home,' is what they want," he says.

Lena has noticed behavioral changes in her kids.

"They stress out," she says. Her 2-year-old has started biting his fingernails. "And he holds his ears whenever just the stress of life come up. Because he don't even want to hear it, you know, and he's 2. He understands too much."

Children are little sponges -- they pick up on everything that happens to their parents, says Shelley Foreman, coordinator of children's services at the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center in Gulfport, Miss.

She says more than one-third of the 80 families they treat report oil-spill related trauma symptoms in their kids, such as anger, irritability or acting out at school.

"They can't use their words because they may not be able to identify what they're feeling, so the only way they know how to tell is by their behaviors," Foreman says. She says the spill has had a spiraling, trickle-down effect that disrupts the functioning of families.

'He's Taking This Harder Than He Took Iraq'

Aaron Hofer is an Iraq war veteran. He's in constant motion as he speaks -- cracking his knuckles, munching on peanuts or smoking a cigarette. His wife says she hardly recognizes the "dog-faced soldier" who never used to let anything get him down.

"He's taking this harder than he took Iraq -- and he was at death's door every day over there," she says. "And because of him not being able to make it up out of this rut, it's just taking him down further and further. We have problems. We fight."

That didn't happen before, she says.

Tears rolling down his cheeks, Aaron recalls a recent breakdown: "Oh lord, three weeks ago I had an outburst. I don't know where it came from. I yelled at my wife, her mother. I ended up busting a window."

Psychologists all along the Gulf Coast report an increase in the kind of problems the Hofers have -- anger, anxiety, sleeplessness and depression.

Since the oil spill, people have been living in a prolonged state of uncertainty, says Steve Barrilleaux, who coordinates adult services at the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center.

"It was totally unexpected, and people had no sense of control or no sense of how extensive the damage was going to be -- how long-lasting it was," Barrilleaux says.

And there's still no closure, he says.

Barrilleaux and other psychologists believe they're only seeing a fraction of Gulf Coast residents suffering from trauma symptoms, in part because in many coastal working towns, there's a stigma associated with seeking help of any kind -- and particularly for mental health care.

"Part of the spirit of being a commercial fisherman has to do with independent thinking, being your own boss, being in control of yourself," Barrilleaux says. "These people are the last true hunter and gatherers on earth, when you think about it.  They have a sense of -- I wouldn't say invincibility -- but a sense of self-reliance: 'No matter what, we can handle it.' "

Lena and Aaron Hofer have survived a lot in their seven years of marriage, including Hurricane Katrina. They desperately want to believe they can handle this crisis, too.

Aaron says he grew up hearing that you don't seek help from "outsiders" -- you take care of your own. But, he says, that hasn't worked so well since the oil spill.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It would be easy for many of us to forget the BP oil spill earlier this year. It was all consuming for months, and then it simply disappeared from the headlines, but it has not disappeared from the minds of people along the Gulf Coast. Researchers say more than one-third of Gulf Coast residents are experiencing symptoms of trauma. As part of our series The Disappearing Coast, NPR's Debbie Elliott looks at the emotional toll the spill has taken on one family.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: These are hard times in the hardworking town of Bayou La Batre, Alabama. It's known as the seafood capital of the state, and struggled to get back in business after Hurricane Karina.

But once again, the processing plants and shrimp boats lining the bayou are mostly idle.

So when Feed the Children trucks arrive at the community center, the turnout is huge.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Ms. LARIE WOODYARD(ph) (Volunteer): 615, I need a box for the 615.

Unidentified Man (Volunteer): Right here, ma'am. I'm getting ready to...

ELLIOTT: Volunteers like Larie Woodyard hand out big cartons paced with food and household goods. Residents had to sign up in advance, so some are reluctantly turned away.

Unidentified Woman (Volunteer): We're out. We only had 800 cards and 800 boxes of groceries. I'm sorry, we just don't have any more.

ELLIOTT: No one makes a scene. This is not a place where asking for help comes easily.

Ms. LENA HOFER: It almost makes you not even want to walk up and ask, you know, because of how many times I've had to do this and everything. It's really hard when they send you away after you do, especially when you need it like I do. I'm about to cry. It's hard.

ELLIOTT: Twenty-five year old Lena Hofer has red circles around her blue eyes.

Ms. HOFER: I'm a homemaker. My husband was a shrimper. So it's bad. It's put us in a really bad spot.

Mr. AARON HOFER: We're very, very close on the edge of losing everything. But, you know, God feeds the birds. How much more does he love us? I have to tell myself that, like, 100 times a day.

ELLIOTT: Aaron and Lena Hofer have been on a downward spiral since the spring. He's a fourth-generation shrimper who lost the lucrative summer season to the BP oil spill. Now the shop where he worked part time, picking crab for cash, has closed down. They can no longer pay the rent, have signed up for food stamps, and are bouncing from home to home, staying with relatives.

Ms. HOFER: It's taken a toll on us. We've split up twice since this happened. We're just now starting to talk and get back together. Because we've lost our place to live, we have lost our vehicle, we have lost our phones.

ELLIOTT: They've lost everything but their children.

Ms. HOFER: I have a two-year-old and a four-year-old. They're both boys, and they're just they're the love of my life. They make me happier than anybody, and whenever I'm down about everything that's going on, I just look at them and know that I'll all right as long as they're still in my life.

Mr. HOFER: If somebody takes my kids because I can't help myself I just, I don't know. It's hard to think about things like that.

Mr. HOFER: Hey you wanna jump?

Unidentified Child (Mr. Hofer's son): No, no, no.

Mr. HOFER: Hey, don't fight. Don't fight.

ELLIOTT: Aaron Hofer is playing with his two boys, Justin and Jordan, at a public playground just across the street from the Gulf where he once made his living. He worked on his uncle's shrimp boat. They had a good week when the waters reopened in the fall, but then broke a winch that hauls in the nets.

Mr. HOFER: That says game over for this year. I lost my job, the boat's broke down. I'm homeless, my wife is living with my mother-in-law, her mother, and I'm living on a boat pretty much. It's hard. They don't understand. Well, why we got to stay with Aunt Mimmy(ph)? Why do we have to stay with G-granny(ph)? Why do we have to stay with Maw Maw(ph)? Are we going to Billy's house? Or, you know... I want to go home, is what they want.

Ms. HOFER: Our kids, they stress out. Since we've lost our place my two-year-old son has started biting his fingernails. And he holds his ears whenever, you know, just the stress of life come up. Because he don't even want to hear it, you know, and he's two. He understands too much.

Ms. SHIRLEY FOREMAN (Coordinator of children's services, Gulf Coast Mental Health Center): Everything that happens with the parents, ultimately children are like little sponges. They see that, they hear that, they pick up on it.

ELLIOTT: Shirley Foreman is the coordinator of children's services at the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center in Gulfport, Mississippi.

She says more than a third of the 80 families they treat report oil-spill related trauma symptoms in their kids, such as anger, irritability or acting out at school.

Ms. FOREMAN: They can't use their words because they may not be able to identify what they're feeling, so the only way they know how to tell us is by their behaviors.

ELLIOTT: Foreman says the spill has had a spiraling, trickle-down effect that disrupts the functioning of families.

Aaron Hofer is 27 years old and an Iraq war veteran. He's in constant motion as he speaks cracking his knuckles, munching on peanuts or smoking a cigarette. His wife says she hardly recognizes the dog-faced soldier who never used to let anything get him down.

Ms. HOFER: He's taking this harder than he took Iraq and he was at death's door every day over there, at risk of death every day. And because of him not being able to make it up out of this rut, it's just taking him down further and further. We have problems. We fight.

Mr. HOFER: Oh lord, three weeks ago I had an outburst. I don't know where it came from. I yelled at my wife, her mother. And I ended up busting a window.

ELLIOTT: Psychologists all along the Gulf Coast report an increase in the kind of problems the Hofers have anger, anxiety, sleeplessness and depression.

Steve Barrilleaux, with the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center, says since the oil spill, people have been living in a prolonged state of uncertainty.

Mr. STEVE BARRILLEAUX (Coordinator of adult services, Gulf Coast Mental Health Center): It was totally unexpected, and people had no sense of control or no sense of how extensive the damage was going to be how long-lasting it was. I don't think we had that closure at all, yet.

ELLIOTT: Barrilleaux and other psychologists believe they're only seeing a fraction of Gulf Coast residents suffering from trauma symptoms, in part because in many coastal working towns, there's a stigma associated with seeking help of any kind and particularly, for mental health care.

Mr. BARRILLEAUX: Part of the spirit of being a commercial fisherman has to do with independent thinking, being your own boss, being in control of yourself. I mean these people are the last true hunter and gatherers on earth, when you think about it. I man, they have a sense of I wouldn't say invincibility but just a sense of, you know, self-reliance: No matter what, we can handle it.

ELLIOTT: Lena and Aaron Hofer have survived a lot in their seven years of marriage, including Hurricane Katrina. They desperately want to believe they can handle this crisis, too.

Aaron says he grew up hearing that you don't seek help from outsiders, but that you take care of your own. But, he says, that hasn't worked so well since the oil spill.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Tomorrow, we compare what residents of the Gulf Coast are going through to what people experienced on Prince William Sound, Alaska, after the Exxon Valdez disaster.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.