Disaster provides employment

Orange oil barriers stretch down the beach in Grand Isle, La., as trucks patrol the beaches to keep people away from areas affected by oil. | Photo Submitted by Jake Whitlatch

By Alli Hill

Jake Whitlatch, freshman biology major, graduated from Jonesboro (Ark.) High School without ever having a job. His first job? Working for a company in the Gulf of Mexico to help clean the oil spill.

A family friend called Whitlatch and told him of a job opportunity for people with computer skills. Two days later he was packing his things and on his way to Grand Isle, La.

Whitlatch worked for a company called The Response Group, which handles personnel and equipment accountability for BP and its contractors in the Gulf. He said he worked in Grand Isle from May 26 until July 30.

“The first week I worked the night shift from 8 p.m. – 8 a.m. alone, in a trailer, guarded by a National Guard member,” Whitlatch said. “Two weeks later, I got a promotion and began working the day shift.”

The Response Group owns software called Incident Action Plan, which serves as a daily resource to track equipment and personnel for BP.

He said his job consisted of putting in boom order requests, or requisitions, sometimes 14 hours a day.

Whitlatch said the boom he worked with came in two different forms: sorbent and containment. He said a sorbent boom is used to absorb the oil, and is not reusable, therefore it is not environmentally friendly.    A containment boom functions as a protective barrier to prevent the spread of oil across the ocean.

Whitlatch said his views on BP and the oil spill as a whole changed after the first few weeks he was in Louisiana and experienced the views expressed by the locals.

“The people of the Gulf Coast, for the most part, do not hate BP,” Whitlatch said. “Practically everyone in Southern Louisiana is either a fisherman or works for an oil company, and many times does both.”

Whitlatch learned the civilians realize BP is not evil and the oil spill was just an accident. He said that overnight the city was transformed from a small town with one bridge on or off the island to a military-base life. The crime rate in the city went up due to the large influx of workers. Crime in the town became so bad a local bar forbade anyone not from the area from entering its doors.

“Grand Isle is a small town where everyone knows everyone,” Whitlatch said. “The workers were doing a good work, but were just there for their money and were reckless.”

The large numbers of crowds did bring business to the small town, even though tourists were not swarming to Grand Isle’s beaches.

“A place called Sand Dollar Marina is a fueling station and a deli that was like a revolving door,” Whitlatch said. “They had business like crazy, yet on the news they complained about not having enough business to get sympathy.”

Whitlatch believes the media painted a different picture than what really happened to the town’s business sector. What the media did not capture was the way the lives of those affected were changed.

“The saddest part of the disaster is not the economic part, but how much it has changed the residents’ lifestyles and who they are,” Whitlatch said. “People who have lived in Grand Isle their whole lives do not want to live there anymore.”

“Many people were left with their livelihoods gone. They are fishermen at heart. They fish, not because it makes them money, but because it is what they love to do — it is their life.”

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