VENICE, LA. — — Highway 23 meanders south of New Orleans toward the Gulf of Mexico through towns with names that conjure the area's rich history — Pointe a la Hache, Magnolia, Home Place. The road winds past old plantation mansions, squat homes with boats parked on the lawn, marshes dotted with twisting cypress trees and orange lilies — and massive oil refinery plants.
This stretch of highway, surrounded by a feathery network of bayous and swamp lands, is the southernmost portion of The Great River Road, which follows the Mississippi River from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. It terminates in Venice, where a sign posted by the water proclaims the small town, "The End of the World."
The scents of gardenias, Cajun spices from seafood shacks and the heavy, unmistakable odor of oil fill the air. For more than a month, since an explosion killed 11 workers and sank an offshore rig, plumes of thick, dark oil have been spewing into the water about 50 miles away.
"Right now, that monster's growing out there, and the heartbreaking thing is, we don't know how big it's going to get," said Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. "This is like having a [Hurricane] Katrina every week."
On Friday, the first oil was found in marshes in the nearby resort town of Grand Isle.
As increasingly desperate government and BP officials attempt to contain the gushing oil with a host of techniques — a "top hat" dome, a mat of hair, chemical dispersants, even an oil strainer devised by actor Kevin Costner — the residents of Venice fear the spill will destroy their two chief industries, fishing and oil.
Like many of their neighbors, Acy and Marla Cooper, owners of the Riverside Restaurant, say oil and seafood are twin themes threading through their lives
"Around here, either you work in the oil industry or you work in the commercial fishing industry," said Marla Cooper, 53, who fries shrimp and oysters caught by her husband for po-boy sandwiches. "And a lot of people do both. When fishing season is closed, a lot of them work in the oil industry."
Marla Cooper grew up in an oil family — her father, brothers and extended family worked on rigs — and Acy Cooper is a third-generation fisherman who can't remember a time when he didn't know how to fish. When the couple's children were small, they pulled them along in a kiddie pool attached to their shrimp trawler. Now their son and son-in-law catch shrimp and oysters, too.
"Once fishing gets in your blood, you can never stop," said Acy Cooper, 49, a compact man with ropey muscles and bright blue eyes. "The water is God's country. If you have problems here on land, out there you forget about everything."
When the shrimp are biting, Cooper stays out on the boat from dusk until the next morning. He watches pelicans and egrets fly overhead and sees turtles and alligators splashing in the tall marsh grasses.
Last week, Cooper spotted tar balls, round clumps of oil dotted with shells, in those grasses.
May marks the beginning of shrimping season here and many families had just readied their boats when the oil from the rig began spilling into the waters they share, said Rene and Ronnie Anderson, friends of the Coopers who had dropped by the restaurant on a recent afternoon.
Now, rather than trawling for shrimp, Ronnie "Chevo" Anderson, 44, was using the couple's boat, the 65-foot Bub-poot-nae, to remove oil for BP, although he said he was not authorized to discuss the specifics of his work.
Nungesser, the parish president, said he was hopeful that BP would employ many local fishermen to help with the cleanup. But gesturing to dozens of boats moored at a marina — including the Miss Annette, the Evelyn, the Restless and the Wager — he said the economic impact could not be underestimated.
At the Riverside, both couples said they were used to fighting to stay afloat. The floodwaters rose so high during Katrina that the stuffed deer heads floated off the walls and out the windows of the restaurant, Acy Cooper said. But the couple managed to rebuild.
Most recently, Cooper, the vice president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, and his wife, a member of the Plaquemines Parish council, lobbied state leaders to impose tougher restrictions on cheap foreign shrimp, a threat to their market.
But now they face a more immediate threat. The prospect of the spill permanently halting fishing in the waters around Venice made Marla Cooper break down in sobs.
Rene Anderson was more hopeful. Cajuns persevere, she said, recalling the community clearing mounds of debris after Katrina, and even removing dead horses from trees. "We'll figure it out some way."