BP oil well capped, but trauma still flowing
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.