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Bayou town wary of 'outside' workers

GRAND ISLE, La. – To hear it from permanent residents of this tiny town at the southernmost edge of the bayou, the community is under siege. Not only did the massive oil spill in the Gulf force an abrupt halt to age-old routines dictated mainly by fishing, but the cleanup up effort has brought an army of workers from "outside."

"It's a drastic change for us, especially in our marinas. It's all workers," said Sheriff Euris DuBois. "The biggest change is we don't know them. They are a different nature."

Photo by Kari Huus/ msnbc.com

Grand Isle Sheriff Euris DuBois in his office on July 12.

Grand Isle has only about 1,500 permanent residents, most born here, said DuBois. They are accustomed to a large influx of families who own the cottages – or "camps" that line the beachfront. But this year, with the beaches off limits and fishing shut down, most of these perennial tourists have stayed away.

Instead there are an estimated 5,000 cleanup workers – from Texas, New Jersey, Alabama and elsewhere. The workers are all male, and the vast majority are black.

That alone is a shock here. The town has only one black permanent resident, said DuBois, and no black tourists that he can recall.

A cool reception
"And they congregate!" a waitress named Jane told diners from out of town as she described the situation, repeating rumors that there was also a rash of theft and violence. "It's bad to where our pastor on Sunday warned the congregation to lock their doors."

Some black workers report they have had a cool reception.

"I don't go out here. I am not welcome," said a worker from Houston who only gave his first name, John. Asked why he felt unwelcome, he said wryly, "uh, just a teeny bit of racism."

A co-worker chimed in: "They gouge us (on rent). They don't want us here," he said. "But we just do the work cleaning up their environment."

Compounding the tension, many companies working down in Grand Isle are renting the beach homes for their workers to stay since all the motels are jam packed. With space scarce, they pay about $100 per night per person right now.

"Some individuals are teed off because they have a group of blacks renting next door," instead of the familiar tourists, said Sheriff DuBois. "But there is no law against that."

Locals want the jobs
In addition, some of the locals are angry because outsiders are getting jobs cleaning up when they have tried and failed to get hired by BP. The beach cleanup crews are mostly under contractors from Texas here, and some of the boats hired to lay boom or help with skimming are from other parts of the Gulf coast.

"We want people from here – Thibodoux, Gretna, Grand Isle [towns in the parish] to get the jobs," said Bradley Hall who came down from Gretna to work but has failed to get a job on the cleanup.

"They don't like any of us," said a captain from New Jersey who is running a boat in the cleanup.

"It's not just blacks. It's Yankees, and everybody who is not from Grand Isle," he said, giving only his first name, Mike.

DuBois dismissed the notion that because of the influx of workers there is also a crime wave.

"Are things missing here more than before? No. No more than normal," he said. "Fighting? Yeah, we get complaints late at night – fights in bars."

But he said that would be going on anyway.

"They just took the place of the tourists," he said.

One spark for the widespread rumors was an actual incident: A few weeks back, outside Cisco's Hideaway on the other side of the island, a worker was stabbed and seriously wounded by another, who has since disappeared. The suspect has been identified and there is an active search ongoing.

Dubois went on the radio to assure people that there was no crime wave in Grand Isle – no one has been raped, he said, to counter that rumor, and the level of theft and petty crime is about normal, he said. And he noted that there are more than 200 security personnel on the 7-mile long strip, including local police, state troopers and many security people hired by BP and the oil spill contractors.

Even so, the government is moving to ease the strains. According to DuBois, the local government is planning to bring in a ship that can sleep 400 workers, in order to move some of the workers out of residential areas.

"If you have a big influx of strangers in a small town, it's natural to have a backlash," he said.