In Ray’s Hands.

Two hours in a town hall meeting with Ray Mabus, the man with the job no one wants: Figuring out what to do now with the Gulf of Mexico.

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 7, 2010

All they’re asking for is an end to government corruption, and you can do that for them, Ray, can’t you? All they’re asking for is accountability, Mr. Secretary, accountability and an end to government corruption.

But since they’re asking already, they’d also like money, and jobs, and a brand new, just-like-it-was-before Gulf, and more research, and enough data to make an Excel spreadsheet whimper, and an end to the use of dispersants, and a promise to stop erosion in the tidal estuaries, and — and, hang on now, Mister Mabus, they’re not done yet — and a translation of every document produced by the government into English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian, at the very minimum, and a promise to end offshore drilling, and a promise to continue offshore drilling, and a promise to not forget us, Mr. Secretary, the ones who got you elected into office three decades ago, remember us?, and investigations into the effects of oil on poor, helpless bacteria, and meetings with the Governor, and answers, and accountability, and an end to government corruption, and most especially their lives back. Give them their lives back, Ray. You can do that, can’t you?

Up front, a wireless mic pinned to his tie, stands Ray Mabus, former auditor of the state of Mississippi, 1984-1988, former Governor of the state of Mississippi, 1988-1992, Secretary of the Navy, 2009-present. The President has asked Mabus to author the Gulf Coast Restoration Plan, a plan that the federal government will use as a guideline to rehabilitate the Gulf of Mexico and the communities that depend on the water. The President has asked Mabus to take input from the people of the Gulf, so Mabus has come to Ocean Springs, Miss., to discuss what’s next now that BP has plugged the leak below the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling rig.

Inside the Ocean Springs Civic Center, a crowd of at least 250 has gathered on a Saturday afternoon to speak with Mabus. This is the ninth town hall session that he’s hosted in recent days.

“Some of the themes are becoming clear,” Mabus told Stry after the session had ended. He said his final report to the President will likely propose considerable local involvement in all future recovery efforts, as well as a suggestion to utilize much of the available research that’s already being done in the Gulf.

Mabus is also worried about the spill’s effect on the mental health of Gulf residents, and he said his report will take that into consideration.

As for a timetable for his final report to the President, Mabus said, “I think it’ll be done in the next few weeks.”

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Ray Mabus listens to a question in Ocean Springs, Miss.
At top left, Ray Mabus waits as a question is asked in Ocean Springs.

¶ ¶ ¶

These are, officially, not town halls. Someone in Washington has given these meetings a political label, and while government jargon usually conceals the truth, their phrasing here unintentionally reveals it. Officially, these are Ray Mabus Listening Sessions, and that’s a perfect description for what ensues. After a short introductory statement, Mabus asks those with questions to step up to a microphone and be heard.

The first man at the mic tells Mabus, “I’m glad you’re here, but I want to get paid.”

The second man tells Mabus, “A lot of people here have lost faith.”

The third, a woman in pink, says, “I don’t trust the federal government at all.”

The fifth, a fisherman: “We can’t get paid,” with that drawn-out Southern vowel that makes “can’t” rhyme with “paint.”

The seventh or eighth, though the notes start getting fuzzy here: “Obama is lying to us” and “Oh, I know you want to speak, Mr. Mabus,” and “You can’t lie to me no more,” and, four or five minutes of semi-controlled rage later, “I love you sir. God bless you.”

The Ray Mabus Listening Session goes on like this for two hours. It is two hours of open-mike psychiatry. Mabus stands in the front of the room, fingers interlaced, and allows those at the microphone to speak for as long as they are willing. At the end of each comment, he responds briefly and then points to the next microphone. In two hours, Mabus speaks for only about 20 minutes. For the rest of the time, he’s a bureaucratic piñata. Stand up and take a whack. Good for what ails you.

“I understand people being frustrated,” Mabus told Stry. “I understand people being worried. I understand people being scared because their livelihoods are threatened.”

But since they’re asking already, they’d also like money, and jobs, and a brand new, just-like-it-was-before Gulf, and more research, and enough data to make an Excel spreadsheet whimper, and an end to the use of dispersants, and a promise to stop erosion in the tidal estuaries, and most especially their lives back. Give them their lives back, Ray. You can do that, can’t you?

The meeting shifts from topic to topic with no real direction, aside from oscillating levels of anger. No one starts a “drill, baby, drill” chant, though several speakers support BP’s right to drill offshore, and several others ask for a commitment to renewable energy. One man reads Mabus a letter he’s written about his favorite species of fish. Several dozen Vietnamese fishermen in the back row are wearing the big black over-the-ear headphones that airlines used to give out on cross-country flights; there is a man behind them feeding live English-to-Vietnamese translation into those headsets. One Vietnamese woman stands up toward the end of the session and asks Mabus a question about receiving payment for a loss of services, and Mabus directs her to the BP table, where the oil rep will later be accosted in at least three different languages.

The crowd is diverse in ways that, in the South, only exist in the coastal counties. They are white, black, Hispanic and Asian. There are men in camo visors and men in camo cowboy hats, politicians in flower-patterned shirts and fisherman in blazers. There are Vietnamese-Americans in some rows, and American vets who once fought against the Vietnamese in others.

They are all asking for something: help, answers, a place to vent. But what seems more important is that they are all asking to be heard, and that one of the most powerful men in the United States has come to listen.

He can do that for them, at least. ❑