As wave after wave of black crude washes ashore in Louisiana, the stench of death follows. It is a smell familiar to the people of New Orleans and South Louisiana, five years after Katrina. But this time the air of defeat is the most crushing blow, a deflation of the human spirit uncommon among a people known for centuries of resilience.
"Delta people are notoriously tenacious and self-reliant," says Mark Martinez, an engineer whose family has lived in New Orleans for five generations. "Many of the people in coastal Louisiana ended up here because there was no other place for them to go." French colonists who were expelled from Acadia in the 1700s became two-stepping Cajuns, Canary Islanders brought Spanish flavor to the mix, and the coffee-colored roux of the native-born Creoles combined both imperial French and enslaved African cultures.
"Our folks simply refuse to be beat down," Martinez told me recently. "It's like a jazz funeral -- everyone is somber on the way to the cemetery, but once the deceased has been laid to rest, the band breaks into an upbeat selection, a second line forms, and the mourners dance."
People in South Louisiana have "an almost superhuman resilience and a hopeful outlook in the face of almost every kind of imaginable hardship -- hurricanes, yellow fever, backbreaking poverty, exploitation. Even the national disgrace of watching our families being separated in the aftermath of Katrina."
But even Martinez notices a new attitude among his neighbors and friends. "It's like their fight is gone," he says, "and I can honestly say I have never seen this before, not even after Katrina."
"I don't know if it's that we haven't had a chance to properly recover from Katrina, or if there is a shared perception of this oil spill being sort of like finding out you have terminal cancer. There is just a kind of hopelessness everywhere."
"People were stunned by Katrina for a long time, but they came out of it. This is different. I hate to say it, but I think this oil spill will make a lot of people give up for good."
On Saturday President Obama announced the creation of a federal commission to examine the causes and extent of the BP disaster. But what residents of the Gulf Coast need now is not a commission, but a solution. Helplessness breeds hopelessness.