Kindra Arnesen's targets are big and across the map. She aims high, and she prefers buckshot. There's Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser ("He's nonexistent"), media heavyweights like The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times ("They're a joke"), Environmental Protection Agency officials ("I had that poor dude stuttering"), but she's most damning to BP. Since the early days of the Gulf oil disaster, she only has to look to her Plaquemines Parish neighbors and tell their stories — sick, out of work, struggling — to raise eyebrows and arms.
She doesn't want to abandon the parish, but she's looking out for her children, ages 5 and 8, and she's not sure what the future may hold for them at home. She moves back and forth from Venice, La., to New Orleans, keeping close to her neighbors and husband, David. Today, she's in New Orleans to meet with a documentary crew. The heat index is well over 100 degrees — her hair is pulled back in pigtails, and she cranks up the air conditioning in her car, parked at the back of a small lot in the Warehouse District.
"Since day seven, I haven't been a mom, I haven't been a wife — all I've been is a community activist. That's it," she says. "I've been all over the place. I've sat down with every documentary crew, every film crew, every newspaper, camera crew. I realized ... someone had to say something."
She beams when she talks about a July 28 WVUE report in which the television station awarded her a Thomas Jefferson Community Leadership Award for her activism in the parish. Cameras followed her as she handed Walmart gift cards to fishermen and their families. The station aired the report the following night. "I wasn't expecting it," she says with a rare smile.
But she's soon brought back to reality: endless paperwork, interviews, parish-wide illness, her family being pulled in separate directions, and the future of Plaquemines Parish, its fisheries, its livelihoods, its people. She's tired and getting sick. Arnesen lost 33 pounds in 100 days. ("Someone said I look like I'm on drugs, I'm like, 'Yeah, f—ing have some Corexit.'")
There's little optimism. But there's hope in the Coastal Heritage Society of Louisiana, a small, fresh-off-the-ground nonprofit group Arnesen has helped put together. The society is raising money to help struggling families with school supplies, electricity and medical bills, mortgage payments and other necessities. The group also is paying for independent tests of air and water quality in the parish.
"Thank God I finally found somebody to work with, because finding somebody to work with is like pulling teeth," she says. "I'm not trying to attack BP through the organization. I've done that plenty on my own."
Is the nonprofit worried that having an outspoken critic like Arnesen on board could compromise its credibility?
"Who, me?" she says. "No. They love me."
Born in Anaheim, Calif., Arnesen is Plaquemines Parish-raised, having grown up around fisheries — her father was a commercial fisherman — and Arnesen's first job was shucking oysters. She's been married 11 years to David, also a commercial fisherman.
But any comments on her successes quickly turn conversation back to the plight of south Louisiana. Arnesen has been to countless town meetings in and around Venice and New Orleans, holding BP, the EPA, the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies accountable for the devastation the oil disaster has wreaked upon the people of Plaquemines Parish. "I really didn't want to be first hit, first forgotten again," she says, recalling the wake of Hurricane Katrina when national attention shifted to New Orleans.
She's become something of a viral star, with YouTube videos — viewed thousands of times — capturing her frank, angry and emotional accounts of her husband and other fishermen getting sick during cleanup. She also turned to the media. She represented the Gulf Coast in a massive Australian 60 Minutes piece in June. ("This is going to affect the entire world," she said.) But more than 300 interviews later, she's still fighting public perception of the disaster and capturing the media's attention, which she says is a battle in itself. "It's a huge picture, and a picture's worth 1,000 words," she says. "If it's not painted correctly, that's one of the problems I have with the media."
A July 23 video ("Spilling Over") on The Washington Post's website shows Arnesen going face to face with Kenneth Feinberg. Arnesen wasn't shy.
The video also documents the family before Arnesen moved the children into New Orleans. David tells them, "It'll be OK. ... We want to send you up there where you're not breathing all this oil stuff. We want to keep you all safe, OK?"
"My husband was pissed," Arnesen says. "He was so mad at me ... for making my kids leave, he was like, 'I cannot believe you sent them out.' I said, 'You can just be mad.' That's the first real problem we've had in 11 years. He's not as upset now. He's still in Venice, with brown shit leaking out his ear. He feels like shit all the time."
And it's not just David who's sick. Arnesen names the ailments plaguing the parish: "nosebleeds, people bleeding out of their rectum, major slamming migraines, nausea when they go outside for a prolonged period of time, rashes."
Large, red bumps on her arms and legs recently kept Arnesen awake at night — she says she felt like her body was attacking itself. Nausea and sties forming on her eyes accompanied the bumps. A skin disease specialist in Hammond diagnosed her with a staph infection. Twenty-four hours later, she visited Plaquemines Medical Center, where doctors diagnosed her with scabies. And not just her — there are reports throughout the parish of misdiagnosed skin lesions, what Arnesen says are likely due to continued exposure of Corexit dispersant and oil-based chemicals.
Stress from the disaster also is taking a toll on residents' mental health. Arnesen's close friend of 20 years called her in tears threatening suicide, fearing he couldn't feed his kids or provide for his family.
"When I got that call, it wasn't just a call from a fisherman," she says. "It was a call from someone I've been friends with since I was 13. ... I know his kids, I introduced him to his wife."
Arnesen called Venice Vessels of Opportunity coordinator Scott Thomas and asked to get the fisherman a job. Instead, her friend was placed in protective custody.
"He didn't talk to me for two weeks," she says. When he did, "He jumps out the car, screaming and hollering coming toward me, and I went right back in his face, forehead to forehead, and said, 'How dare you. You think me, of all people, called the cops?' ... I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't."
David is still in Venice, trying to keep fisheries in the parish alive. A successful "static kill" of the well and waters open to fishing won't cure the community. After failed attempts to cap the well, Arnesen says she never was discouraged. "I wasn't worried about my livelihood. I'm a survivor. I've done everything under the sun to survive in life financially and have always done well," she says. "I'm going to do something else, eventually. We'll have to. We have no choice."
The waters are open, but shrimpers and fishermen aren't back to work — docks are closed or closing. They're not buying, and neither are the factories. She says freezers are full of imports, leaving fishermen out to dry.
"But they don't want to f—k with this shrimp out here anyway," Arnesen says. Potentially tainted seafood would land a domino-effect blow to fishermen, restaurants and factories in the Gulf, she says, and nobody trusts the agencies performing the tests.
With no fisheries, there are more claims to be filed.
"When I brought my paperwork to BP, it was a stack of papers like this," Arnesen says, holding her hands about a foot apart.
She prepared tax documents from 2007 to 2009 and brought 2010 up to date. "They wanted every paper," she says. The Arnesens sold about $200,000 worth of seafood a year — after rebuilding the business following Hurricane Katrina. But Arnesen predicts they'll only see a fraction of that.
Once you file, how much will you get, and when will you know?
"You don't," she says. "That's the beauty. People like me are a pain in the ass. And I told them the last time they contacted me, the only way they were going to get another f—ing slice of paper from me is if they sent me the formula they were figuring our claim on. And they did. I don't know what to expect from here. I'm going to take it to my accountant, with my tax papers, and have her write everything that's f—d up, and I'm going to take it to the attorney and say, 'This is what they're trying to do to people.'
"I don't know what to do ... at this point. I could either just stop what I'm doing and bury my head in the sand, but I know my people are still being poisoned down there, I know they're going to get screwed in the long run," Arnesen says. "It's not just BP and public opinion we're fighting. While the other oil companies have sat back and let BP hang itself with its own noose, when it comes to litigation, (we're) going to be fighting every oil company out there. They're not going to let us win because it sets a precedent. We are not going to be able to win this, not even settle. If they pay us, it sets forth a precedent for future litigants. They're not going to let it happen."
So how does it end?
"A dead fishery, contaminated land, a box of bills and a court date — in at least 10 or 20 (years)," she says. "It's already happened overnight. Our docks are closed, our factories aren't buying, nobody wants to eat Louisiana seafood. It's not 'Is it going to happen?' It's already occurred. Where do we go from here?"
- Community activist Kindra Arnesen is fighting to save Plaquemines Parish, her neighbors and their way of life.