HOUMA, La. – Three days after arriving in this shaken city, Dick Clime of Bristol and Hugh Cowperthwaite of Portland had yet to see any physical evidence of the oil that has been washing up on much of the Gulf Coast.

The two work for Coastal Enterprises Inc., a Wiscasset-based agency that provides financing and business counseling to Maine’s marine industry. They are part of a group assessing the impact of the BP oil spill on the economy of Terrebonne Parish, about an hour south of New Orleans.

They arrived Monday expecting to find Houma, the parish seat, and surrounding communities focused on the devastation to the fishing industry and fragile coastal ecosystems.

“We have tried to steer the conversation back to the oil spill and fisheries, and it quickly goes back to the moratorium,” said Cowperthwaite.

The moratorium is the six-month ban imposed on offshore drilling by the Obama administration late last month. That ban has Terrebonne Parish preparing for an economic crisis that some say could deal a bigger blow than the pollution from the spill and the four hurricanes that have ripped through the region in the past several years.

“If the oil rigs pull out, it will completely destroy the economy,” said Michelle Cardwell Edwards of Houma.

Edwards is a Biddeford native whose father and grandparents still live there. She moved to Louisiana with her mother when she was in high school and fell in love with the state.

She lives here, though she quickly adds that she visits Maine twice a year and her 16-year-old daughter attends the New England Music Camp in Sidney each summer.

Edwards is the marketing director for the Terrebonne Economic Development Authority, and has been ushering Clime and Cowperthwaite around to meet with business officials.

On Wednesday, the two Mainers met with officials from BP, the federal Economic Development Association and the Coast Guard at Melvin’s, a restaurant overlooking the Intercoastal Waterway.

Among the Coast Guard representatives was Lt. Cmdr. Pat Quinn, a reservist from South Portland-based Sector Northern New England.

Houma is in the heart of bayou country, surrounded by swamps and waterways. People who grow up here speak with a deep southern drawl or a Cajun accent.

Since the oil spill began in April, thousands of Coast Guard personnel, wildlife biologists and other responders have arrived, and now accents from Brooklyn, New England and farther away are heard here.

The hotels in and around Houma are full, so Clime and Cowperthwaite are staying in a rental house with their group. They have dubbed it “the ranch,” because it is a rambling structure with three separate buildings and a horse in a corral.

Cowperthwaite has worked for Coastal Enterprises for about seven years. Clime joined the agency two years ago, after selling his oyster business in Damariscotta.

They were hired by the International Economic Development Council, out of Washington, D.C. With a grant from the Economic Development Administration, the council has been working in this region since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The focus shifted once the oil spill hit, and Clime and Cowperthwaite were brought in.

The two have met with fishermen and owners of shrimp processing plants, including a fourth-generation operation in the community of Dulac.

The plant usually employs 60 people, but business is down 60 percent, said Cowperthwaite, primarily because most of the 80 boats that provide shrimp to the plant are now working for BP, helping to clean up the spill.

“They get more money from BP and the daily rate is more reliable” than fishing, Cowperthwaite said. He was told that fishermen are being paid $2,000 a day by BP.

In Terrebonne Parish alone, 1,200 boats are working for BP and 1,500 are on a waiting list to join the fleet of 12,000 private boats hired by BP.

Edwards’ best friend’s husband, who’s the captain of a fishing excursion boat, is now under contract with BP, ferrying around scientists who are monitoring the spilled oil.

The spill’s impact on the fishing industry has paled, compared with concerns over what the drilling moratorium could do to the parish, where unemployment has been only 3 percent.

Local officials told Clime and Cowperthwaite that 25 to 35 percent of the workforce will be out of work if the oil rigs leave for more welcoming parts of the world. The rigs employ parish residents, and have spawned an entire economy that supports them.

Local officials say 40 to 50 percent of the economy is based on the oil-and-gas industry. “It ripples down to banks, retail and fishermen,” said Clime.

Clime said local officials are scrambling to deal with the crisis and feel that the federal government has abandoned them, because there has been no talk of federal financial relief if the rigs leave.

There were 33 rigs operating in the Gulf of Mexico, and a few have already left. The rigs are in high demand around the world. Once they leave, they may never return, people here say.

People in Terrebonne Parish are worrying about the effect on social services, and hospitals are already reporting an increase in unpaid bills, Clime said.

Clime said the Obama administration has made a political decision — to ban more offshore drilling — that is difficult to reverse.

He said some people here are pushing for a compromise, such as dropping the ban and overwhelming the rigs with inspectors to prevent the human errors that led to the disaster on the Deepwater Horizon.

Clime and Cowperthwaite have been working 14- and 15-hour days since they got here. Their group will deliver a report about what they are finding to local officials today.

They will then return to Maine and work on a longer report.

After Wednesday’s meeting at the restaurant, Clime and Cowperthwaite were whisked away to their next appointment, still not sure that they would see physical evidence of the spill before they leave.

“We haven’t seen it or smelled it,” said Cowperthwaite.

 

Staff Writer Beth Quimby may be reached at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]