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Culture clash: Flood of oil spill cleanup workers creates tension in some coastal La. towns

The women of Grand Isle are nervous. Used to be, they say, they could walk the streets of their beachside town alone, getting a little exercise after the hottest part of the day or setting out the trash after midnight.

Now, a waitress won't let her 14-year-old daughter stroll to the store for a Coke, a souvenir shop owner is afraid to sit on her porch after dark and a bartender deadbolts her door, a newly purchased gun nearby.

The vacationing families and sport fishermen who make this tourist town of 1,500 what it is are absent this summer, replaced by an army of workers brought in by BP to clean up the massive Gulf Coast oil spill.

The outsiders walk in small groups along Route 1 at workday's end and sometimes cut across lawns and under elevated houses to reach bars like Daddy's Money, where women wrestle in oil. Some wear low-slung jeans, which prompted this warning note on one convenience store door: "No pants on the ground allowed."

What do such reactions mean? A BP official says some culture clash is understandable, though he's occasionally seen outright racial bias at work. But talk to some of the mostly white residents, and they don't directly mention the skin color of the workers, most of whom are black.

The workers, they say, just act different. And that makes some people uneasy, even though the vast majority of the workers pose no threat.

Vicki McVey, a 44-year-old who pours beers at Artie's Sports Bar, says she's not taking any chances.

"Never had a gun. Never had a weapon. Now I got a weapon right next to my bed," says McVey, who stopped taking her grandson to the park when cleanup workers moved into a trailer nearby.

"You go to the park and they come and they touch you and want to talk to you and they harass you," she complains.

Fears like McVey's don't surprise the men whose presence prompts them. Friday night, several black men in town for the cleanup sat in a grassy area near the island's only grocery store, deciding what meat to buy to grill for dinner. They said they hadn't been treated badly, though like most cleanup workers along the coast, they didn't want to give their names for fear of losing their jobs.

"This little town is just like any little town in the country," said one, who identified himself only as Daryl. "A bunch of strangers are going to scare them. A bunch of black strangers are going to scare them even more."

Another worker said he and his peers mostly just keep to themselves.

"People treat you OK," he said. "But they haven't put any picnics on for us."

People in town are talking about a recent stabbing, the first anyone can remember in ages (one published report said both victim and attacker were cleanup workers). Locals suspect the workers when items go missing now, including golf carts that folks often use to get around.

No one offers facts and figures to back up the stories. Neither the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office nor Police Chief Euris DuBois, who's upset over recent media reports about his town, would provide crime statistics or speak to The Associated Press.

But the perception of a problem is undeniable.

"You used to be able to go and enjoy yourself, you know? Have a few drinks with your friends," says 68-year-old Emma Chighizola, who used to sit outside and listen to the waves after a day of selling T-shirts and seashell tchotchkes at Blue Water Souvenirs. "Now it's kind of dangerous. There's too many strangers."

Parish Councilman Chris Roberts says he's witnessed "hostile environments ... no question."

Tension is natural when a small town has a sudden influx of outsiders, Roberts says, and parish officials are monitoring it. But bringing in help is necessary, he said: "There's not (local) people lining up to go work in 105-degree heat to clean the beach."

BP spokesman Jason French says some 1,800 workers from around the country report to Grand Isle at least once a day, including almost 300 who clean the town's beaches. BP tried to hire locals, he says, but no more than three dozen submitted applications for jobs that pay as little as $12 an hour.

Some tension in town is over cultural differences, he says, "but I can't deny there has been some racism."

While BP won't respond to complaints it considers motivated by bias, French says it does promptly address any legitimate behavioral problems. Workers, for example, were told to stop crossing lawns because they were trespassing.

BP also dismissed some cleanup workers for unspecified misbehavior, though French can't say how many because they worked for subcontractors. The oil company has begun requiring those contractors to screen workers for drug and alcohol use as a condition of employment.

"As someone who's been here for months, I get frustrated when workers are painted with a broad brush or the community is painted with a broad brush," French says. "It's not a community of racists any more than we have convicts working the beach.

"These are hardworking people working the beaches," he says, "and there are people who are nervous because they're seeing something they haven't seen before."

All along the Louisiana coast, the flood of oil spill workers has temporarily altered towns.

Quiet fishing villages in St. Bernard Parish have become small cities that bustle like military bases, with security checkpoints, a round-the-clock police presence and the never-ending rumble of trucks hauling food, trash and equipment on narrow country roads.

And besides the influx of men and machines, there's a deeper factor underlying locals' mood. They talk of frustration over the loss of something simple — the joy of a summer on the water. That disappeared when the Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20, killing 11 oil rig workers and spilling millions of gallons of oil.

"You don't hear no fishing stories, no beach stories, no talking about their kids and how they caught their first fish. None of that," says Buggie Vegas, owner of the Bridge Side Marina in Grand Isle. "It's just work, work, work. Every day, from a Saturday to a Monday to a Wednesday. We don't know what day it is. It don't matter what day it is."

Vegas' 30 rental units are full and his store still has some business, but it's different: Instead of selling bait and tackle or T-shirts, he's stocking green plastic hardhats, black rubber boots and tie-down straps.

"Everybody's like robots," he says. "They just trying to get hired on."

Artie's Sports Bar normally employs 16 bartenders who serve 2,000 people and pocket at least $250 in tips on a Saturday night. Now, it takes just six of them to wait on a crowd of 100.

Security guards who used to work only on weekends now monitor the door at Artie's every night, checking patrons for weapons and watching closely for trouble.

When she doesn't like how things are going, McVey plays country music, hoping the crowd will move on.

Shannon Ronquille, a 33-year-old waitress, says authorities patrol the beach on four-wheelers at night, protecting waterfront homes that owners are reluctant to rent to cleanup crews.

It doesn't help that business is off more than 60 percent at Barataria Seafood Grill, the island's only fine dining establishment — a place where, in normal times, dressed-up vacationers often wait an hour for seating.

"Now," Ronquille says, looking over the empty, white linen-covered tables, "we have guys coming in with oil all over their boots."

Two and a half hours away in Arabi, the tension manifests itself differently.

There, a former school, renamed Camp Hope after Hurricane Katrina, has for five years been home to volunteers from across the country who came to rebuild storm-wrecked homes.

But in June, the volunteers were told to move: BP was converting the building to a work camp.

"All the locals were more than happy to see AmeriCorps people here, that people were helping to rebuild, and it's just a stark contrast to that," says 20-year-old AmeriCorps worker Kyla Philbrook, of Albany, N.Y.

St. Bernard Parish has been spared the complaints that mar Grand Isle for several reasons: In Hopedale, Shell Beach and Delacroix, there's no infrastructure to support thousands of workers. No grocery stores. No bars. No motels. Many workers are bused in for the day.

Law enforcement, citing lessons from Katrina, also set the tone early on: In May, Sheriff Jack Stephens declared the community "won't tolerate a criminal invasion in the guise of people claiming they are arriving to help."

A month later, he asked federal immigration officials to investigate claims illegal immigrants were working for BP.

"We're not worried about people who want to earn an honest buck," he said at the time.

Since then, deputies have made only a handful of arrests. Under a deal with BP, off-duty deputies provide paid security at worker encampments. And deputies "engage" every chance they get, whether at a traffic stop or a checkpoint, says Chief Deputy James Pohlmann, who notes that BP has strict rules for the Arabi camp.

"It's like an extension of the job. There's no alcohol, no weapons," he says. "If you leave, you have to leave on a shuttle bus to a parking lot that's offsite."

Though workers are free to leave in their own vehicles, they are not free to walk around the neighborhood. If caught doing so, their ID is seized, "and what that means is, you lost your job."

In Hopedale, oysterboat captain Michael Anglin says the strategies are working. He's even made some friends among the outsiders.

"There's tension sometimes, but it's just like any job," he says. "It's mostly been on where you park your car. In the wrong spot, somebody gets a little arrogant. And fishermen don't put up with that. It's our town, ya know. You just visiting."

Traffic, in fact, is the biggest complaint among residents who watch weed-filled lots slashed and burned to make way for trailers. At the end of Hopedale Highway in Breton Sound Marina, BP runs a mess tent that feeds workers three meals a day. That means a steady stream of vehicles.

"I'm scared to let my kids cross the highway," says 55-year-old former fisherman Kurt Guerra, his 9-year-old daughter Cassie playing on a swingset a few hundred feet from the pavement.

The presence of so many strangers is unsettling, Guerra says, but with barely a place to buy a beer, problems are few.

"Thank God they keep 'em working all the time," he says.

___

Associated Press writer Mary Foster contributed to this report.

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