Voice Off the Bayou

Derrick Evans squinted into the sunlight glaring off the brackish water of Grand Bayou, an hour's drive south of New Orleans, filled his lungs with the pungent air of the fertile delta wetlands, and gazed off toward the Gulf of Mexico.

A mile away lay the leading edge of 4 million gallons of crude oil, its toxic film lying in wait like some predatory pall bearing down upon the verdant marsh and its rich bounty of shrimp, oysters, fish and birds.

"The reason there's so much oil out there is because there has always been so much life here," said Evans, a history teacher pondering the origins of petroleum reaching back 300 million years.

"The same forces that made this America's wetlands made the area America's carbon graveyard," he said last week. "Maybe there's a reason why native Americans say don't mess with burial sites."

A big man with a voice that rises like thunder across the bayou, Evans has a gift for tying the past to the present with a literary bow finished off with ironic twists.

In the weeks since a BP oil rig sank and began spewing crude oil into the sea, he's emerged as a powerful and eloquent advocate for tens of thousands of Gulf Coast families whose lives are tied to the water.

"We don't have a lot of money," he told me. "The capital that we do have, and use to the best of our ability, is our relationships and our stories. We didn't know the next chapter was going to include this."

The Gulf oil spill has the potential to become the most catastrophic economic and environmental disaster to hit this region since Hurricane Katrina roared through five years ago.

Still reeling from Katrina and scarred by a federal response so inept that it shocked the world, Evans and those he speaks for are bracing for another punishing round of setback and loss.

"We are a people in constant disaster," Evans intoned as if quoting Scripture. "We don't get to recover from one before another hits. It's almost like a book of Job that doesn't end."

Evans is an advisor to the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Economic Health, a project of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

After touring Grand Bayou in an oyster boat last week, he hosted a meeting of other Gulf Coast Fund participants and community activists last in Biloxi, Miss. There, he and his peers spoke clearly and directly about what they need most.

First, he said, they need authoritative information about the risks to health and livelihood. Who is monitoring air and water quality, asks Evans, how are those results being shared and what do they mean to the daily lives and decisions being made by families who live here?

They need help, also, in documenting losses and applying for disaster assistance, a nightmare in the Katrina aftermath, which was harder than it had to be for many Gulf people simply because they couldn't demonstrate hardship in accordance with federal requirements.

They need help in navigating the morass of legal issues raised when people who make ends meet from one catch to the next find the waters they've worked for generations poisoned by corporate forces they can't control. They may well need litigation assistance to ensure that those who caused the damage pick up the tab.

"I want to know what the community might need in terms of legal support and capacity," said John Jopling, senior staff attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice.

Finally, and perhaps most enduringly, they need help in advocating for the big-picture change in U.S. energy policy that can strike a new balance between the nation's need for fuel and power and the delicate and complex Gulf Coast environment of oceans, coastline, estuaries and marsh.

The American people - across the Gulf Coast and across the country - need a clean energy future that will move us away from our increasingly dangerous dependence on oil and toward the sustainable and renewable power sources of tomorrow.

Legislation that takes a step in the right direction was unveiled this week in the Senate, but it will take leadership from President Obama for the bill to be strengthened and to succeed.

This is a national imperative. We owe it to our children; we owe it to ourselves.

And yet, as the people of the Gulf Coast gird themselves for the brunt of a catastrophic oil spill, it is here, in a voice off the bayou, I heard the case for change made loud and clear.

"This is really just the beginning of the first part of this disaster," warned Evans. "When you separate man's experience from nature, you're doomed."