The Lost Coast: BP Oil Spill Changes Life for a Small Louisiana Surf Community

Louisiana left-hander. // Photo Mark Windham
Louisiana left-hander. // Photo Mark Windham

However far-reaching and colorful the 21st-century tribe of surfers has become, the few that call the southern Louisiana coast home are an anomaly to say the least. At 42, Kent Hornbacker's family has been living near the surrounding beachheads of Louisiana for generations. With a set of piercingly blue eyes and a soft-but-unique accent, Hornbacker is a mix of both the traditional Cajun and the modern surfer. When it's flat, he and his friends play the fiddle and Louisiana-centric music along the mud-toned shoreline. When a swell fills in, they'll build a makeshift shelter and stay in the lineup until the last peak fades into the night. They are truly dedicated and are deeply appreciative of their home waters, even as the worst environmental disaster in this country's history strangles the very life from them.

With nearly three-and-a-half-million barrels of oil bleeding into the Gulf and a multi-billion-dollar recovery effort underway, it's easy for us to look at the BP disaster as a set of endless numbers. But however staggering the figures may be, they can never convey the day-to-day grit and painful reality that has swept across the people of coastal Louisiana. Their story—one of desperation, disgust, and anger—needs to have a face. And in south Louisiana, that face is Kent Hornbacker, a man that has lost his job, and his homebreak, because of the spill.

I understand that you're one of the premier figures in the Louisiana surfing scene. Can you briefly tell us what the surf community is like down there?

Of course. The scene down here is pretty unique. We don't have a lot of great days down here, but we get a few. I've been surfing out here for nearly 22 years and it hasn't really changed too much over time. I basically surf with about five guys most of the time and there are really only a few places to surf that are accessible by car. All in all, I'd say there's around 100 surfers down here total. The surf's not always great, but it's home and we love it.

How has the oil spill affected you and the other surfers in Louisiana?

I don't even know really where to begin. It's changed everything. I've lost my job, my homebreak, my family was trying to sell a waterfront motel and now that's gone. It's all gone. But you know what, it wouldn't be as bad if I could go surf. But I can't.

What were you doing for work before the spill?

I had a business where I was selling ice and fuel to the shrimp boats. But since they're not fishing anymore, I've got no business.

What are the beaches looking like down where you are?

To be honest, I can't even bring myself to go down there since the beaches were closed off. It's too depressing. Even if I wanted to, the folks at BP have a barricade up and if you cross that, they'll detain you.

Who's acting as security down there? The Coast Guard, BP, or the police?

Mostly BP. It's pretty horrible. It feels like they're policing their own crime scene.

In your opinion, how long until you think you can surf your homebreak again?

I don't know. Maybe never. I hope not. I feel like the area down here has been treated like a Third World country. As soon as a little bit of oil gets down on the Panhandle and their perfectly white sand, you see a whole army of people down there cleaning it up. But that's not the case down here.

When news first broke that there had been an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon and a subsequent leak, did you ever imagine that it would take this long to stop it?

No. Never. I just want them to stop the leak soon. They should have been able to do it by now. But you know what, you can't really blame BP without blaming the government.

In your eyes, what needs happen to make this right?

Just stop the leak. Stop it. We just need to get that thing stopped. I can't believe it's taking this long. Stop the leak. That's the first thing we've got to take care of.

Cajun Kent Hornbacker, enjoying better days. // Photo: Windham
Cajun Kent Hornbacker, enjoying better days. // Photo: Windham