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"I'm a Nervous Wreck": Gulf Fishermen's Wives Face Trauma, Domestic Abuse, Economic Insecurity

The wives of the men whose livelihoods have likely been destroyed by the BP spill forever, grapple with an uncertain future and air their rage.
 
 
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Inside a cool, shaded old plantation house in St. Bernard, Louisiana, we're all breathing in our favorite color and blowing out gray smoke.

This relaxation exercise is brought to a roomful of women by the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit founded in 2006 to provide rebuilding services to Katrina-ravaged St. Bernard Parish as well as offer "psychological rebuilding" through its wellness and mental-health center. Since the oil spill started, the organization has been looking to vastly expand its services to meet the area's latest mental-health crisis: the unrelenting depression falling on families living and working on the Gulf Coast. Everyone here except the three clinic workers and me is a fisherman's wife.

Michelle, the clinical coordinator running this early-morning support group, asks the five wives who have come what the St. Bernard Project can do to help them.

"I don't know, because I don't know what's gonna happen."

"We need work. For the wives."

"Whatever happens needs child care. If wives are gonna start workin', someone has to take care of the kids. A lot of fishermen have kids."

"The biggest issue is that our situation is unknown," a woman named Tammy says.* She is tough and broad and has a soothing husk in her voice like phone sex or five packs of cigarettes. Tammy is dressed in white and is eight months pregnant. I hope never to get in a bar fight with her. "They haven't stopped the oil, huh? This is like a time bomb. You can't prepare for what you don't know. But I can tell you right now that we need toilet paper."

The claims checks BP is supposed to be sending are eight days late, which means everyone's out of cash for necessities. The day before, cars lined up and down the nearby highway for a 38,000-pound food giveaway. This morning, like every morning, there was a line outside a church center in New Orleans East, in a part of town where stray dogs scavenge trashy lots and industry makes the air smell like burning toast. There, and at four other locations around Southern Louisiana once a week, Catholic Charities is giving out $100 grocery vouchers. Though they don't open until nine, sometimes it takes being at the doors by four in the morning, when it's somehow already hot, to get one, because they always run out. But you can't buy toilet paper with the vouchers—food only.

I remember that about the $75 grocery vouchers the Red Cross gave us as Katrina evacuees in 2005. The checkout clerk at a grocery store in Ohio wouldn't let me buy vitamins, and boy was I mad about that. Had I not already cried myself out at the Gap looking at a shirt that I already owned but might be underwater back home, I would have pitched a sobby fit in Giant Eagle.

"They won't even let you buy Dawn," Brenda complains. It's difficult to describe Brenda without employing the phrase "fiery redhead." In January, she moved out of the 10-by-16-foot FEMA trailer she'd been living in with four kids and a husband and cats and dogs. In the new house, she can't stop the kids from sleeping in her bed, because they got used to doing it, out of necessity, for so long. She thinks almost everything, including the following statement, is funny: "I mean, Dawn is related to food."

"So is toilet paper," Tammy says, and everyone thinks that's funny, too.

"You could get food with food stamps, but ain't no way to get toiletries."

 
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