From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
TWO MONTHS AFTER THE EXPLOSION OF BP'S DEEPWATER HORIZON, SOME 30,000 BARRELS OF OIL CONTINUE TO POUR INTO THE WATERS OFF LOUISIANA'S GULF COAST DAILY, THREATENING THE JOBS AND WILDLIFE OF A FRAGILE REGION FOR DECADES TO COME. THOSE ON THE FRONT LINES OF THE WORST ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER IN U.S. HISTORY ARE FURIOUS-AND FIGHTING TO SAVE A WAY OF LIFE

A SOLDIER'S DUTY

RETIRED ARMY CAPTAIN AND BP CONTRACT CLEANUP WORKER JOSEPH ADKINS, 58, PORT FOURCHON, LA.

When I saw how bad the spill was, I knew I needed to help. I closed up my house and had my sister take care of things. We work 12-hour days, and it gets really hot; we can only be in the hazmat [hazardous materials] suits for 20 minutes at a time. I'm shoveling up oil [the oily layer of sand when the tide goes out] and putting down "pom-poms" [on the sand to soak up oil]. I didn't plan on spending my retirement this way, but I'll stay as long as I can. I can go to bed every night and know I helped a little bit.

A FISHERMAN'S NIGHTMARE

AL CASSAGNE, 51, GRAND ISLE, LA.

A few days after the spill, the waters were closed, and I lost my ability to earn a living. BP gave me a [partial compensation] check for $5,000, but that's only enough to pay some business obligations; it's not enough to feed my family. I lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. But this is worse because [after Katrina] the waters went down and I put my life back together. I'm worried about my son [Alphonse, 16]. What will it teach him if he sees that you can work hard but someone else can take it all away? But I want him to see that we're strong and can get past this. We'll never give up.

FROM SHRIMPER TO MAID

ANGEL DASSAU, 42, GRAND ISLE, LA.

I would go out every morning; there was an abundance of big shrimp. It was hard work, but I got a fair price and I loved it. Being on the water is like being close to God. When the waters were closed, I had to find something fast, so now I'm cleaning hotel rooms. It's honest work, but it's not what I expected for my life. Every minute I'm wondering how I'm going to make a living, and the guy from BP [CEO Tony Hayward] gets on TV and says he wants his life back? I am so angry they had no plan to stop spills. My dad worked in oil. He was a company man. I don't hate oil companies, but I hate what they have done. I'm not in despair, though. People underestimate us because we are a fishing community. I'll tell you what: We are smart, we are strong. And we're going to survive.

A BIRD RESCUER'S MISSION

JAY HOLCOMB, 59, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, INTERNATIONAL BIRD RESCUE RESEARCH CENTER, BURAS, LA.

When I was 15, I found a Murre on the beach in San Francisco, and it had oil on it; I took him in and wrapped him in a towel. I didn't know how to clean him, but he molted off the feathers and lived for a few years. I've always loved animals and wanted to help them. I got here on May 1, and I'll be here through the duration. After Exxon Valdez [in 1989], I was [in Alaska] for three months. But that had an end point: There was a finite amount of oil that had spilled into the water. This one can go on and on. I work 18-hour days [cleaning birds with a solution of water and dishwasher detergent]. There is a lot of work; there are a lot of birds. It's tiring. If you look at the whole job, it can be overwhelming. But when you rescue one bird that was about to die and see it make a full recovery, that is so rewarding. I want to get the word out: The environment really does matter. And I want to change the world, one bird at a time.

AN ARTIST SPREADS THE WORD

BOBBY PITRE, 33 LAROSE, LA.

My daughter came home from a movie and said, "They should make a movie about the oil spill." It got me thinking. I can't make a movie, but I can paint, so I decided to go for it. I wanted to paint a vivid picture in people's minds. People just weren't understanding how devastating this was. They were acting like nothing was wrong. I wanted people to know something really is wrong out there. My parents grew up here. Their parents did too. They lived in camps, and they lived off the Gulf. So when the oil is killing the Gulf, it's killing more than the wildlife and the habitat. It's killing the culture. Once that's gone, there's no getting it back. Now [my tattoo parlor] has become a gathering place. A lot of people have stopped watching the news, but they come here and start talking about things. Some people cry, some people are angry, and some people tell jokes. Everyone deals with it in their own way. And I still have hope.

A POLITICIAN'S FIGHTING WORDS

BILLY NUNGESSER, 51, PRESIDENT OF PLAQUEMINES PARISH, BELLE CHASSE, LA.

I'm on the front lines of a war. I'm not getting on TV because I want to grab the spotlight. People can't make a living and feed their families. These are self-sufficient, proud people; they don't want to be on welfare. You can call me blunt. But when toxic oil is spilling all over our backyard, I'm going to call BP on it and hold their feet to the fire. I wasn't intimidated when I met with President Obama [on May 28]; he appreciated my straightforwardness. It's very hard to wrap your mind around this. You can take pictures of dying birds and fish, but how many birds? How many fish? No one knows. Each day that passes will ruin the Gulf Coast a little more. So if it takes me pushing hard, that's what I'm going to do. And I'm not going to stop until we get results.

  • Contributors:
  • With reporting by Kristina Dell/New York City,
  • Joanne Fowler/New York City.