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Gulf Coast folks will fight for their rights

By Kathleen Koch, Special to CNN
  • Kathleen Koch grew up on Mississippi Gulf Coast, a place of pristine beauty
  • Her friends and family saw the first tar globs come ashore Fourth of July weekend
  • Coast residents toughed out Katrina, Koch says, and will fight for their rights after oil disaster
  • BP or anyone else underestimates Gulf Coast residents at their peril, she says

Editor's note: Kathleen Koch is a Washington-based freelance journalist, author and speaker. Her book, "Rising from Katrina," traces her Mississippi hometown's recovery and is available online now and in bookstores August 1. She was a CNN general assignment correspondent for 18 years.

(CNN) -- Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our forefathers penned those simple words into the Declaration of Independence 234 years ago as a promise to every citizen of their fledgling country. Today, millions of Americans living along the Gulf Coast find those unalienable rights threatened.

I grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It was a place of pristine, natural beauty. Miles of soft, sandy beaches. The gentle, warm waters of the Mississippi Sound. The bays that cut inland to rivers and streams lined with grassy marshes and bayous that served as nurseries for tiny crabs, shrimp and all manner of fish and marine life.

This weekend, as the nation celebrated, the first black tar balls and foul patties from the oil spill washed up on the beaches of my hometown. Bay St. Louis was hosting its annual Crab Fest on Friday when the quarter- to fist-size globs began rolling in. My brother called to say he'd spotted some in front of the site of our former home on South Beach Boulevard. It was sickening.

The people of the Gulf Coast are a hardy bunch. They already faced the worst nature could dish out when Hurricane Katrina hit. And just as they were getting back on their feet after years of heartache and struggle, the worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history smacks them back down.

That is what makes this such a difficult time for my family, friends and neighbors on the Gulf Coast. Hurricane Katrina left them with a new sense of vulnerability. Its scars are deep. And they are tired to the bone.

The oil spill is like a slow-moving plague.
--Kathleen Koch
Video: Mississippi cleaning up small tar balls
Video: Jimmy Buffett on Gulf oil spill
Video: Gulf towns facing money problems
Video: Oil washes ashore in Alabama

But that doesn't mean they won't fight. It is a lesson BP executives or anyone else who would underestimate them ignores at their peril. At times of crisis, those in the claims division of corporate giants often reason that residents who've lost everything will take anything. So they offer shrimpers, oystermen and those who fish the Gulf Coast waters pennies on the dollar for their losses.

Many insurance companies did the same after Hurricane Katrina. The people fought back. And they will this time. But they shouldn't have to.

Some have asked if the response would have been as bungled if oil gushed into the waters off New York City. A fisherman's wife in Louisiana with a front-row seat on BP's response fumes at the company's talk of a need to cut cleanup expenses, and the "dog and balloon" shows BP says it puts on for visiting politicians. The politicians come, shake hands and leave -- at which point the cleanup workers and rows of skimmer boats disappear. I have heard from Gulf Coast residents trained and ready to work on cleaning everything from beaches to oil-covered birds who say they have found their skills either ignored or wasted.

Hurricane Katrina was like an amputation -- a swift, crippling, traumatic blow. But afterward it was clear what was lost and what had to be done to recover. The oil spill is like a slow-moving plague. Residents don't know where it's going, how long it will last, who it will infect next, whether its effects will be fatal or survivable. The resulting sense of helplessness and dread is devastating.

Already, reports are emerging that cleanup workers and Louisiana residents are becoming sickened from their exposure to the oil and its fumes. There has been at least one suicide. The mental and emotional anguish in the phone calls, e-mails and text messages I get daily from family and friends on the Gulf Coast is heartbreaking.

A high school classmate messaged me on Facebook that her adult daughter was coloring with her 5-year-old and drew some waves and a bright sun in the sky. The child reached over and scribbled a yellow blob over the water. When asked what it was, she said, "That's the oil."

Even the youngest see the place they love slipping away. Because it's not just those who ply their trade on the sea, or who house, feed or entertain tourists, who stand to lose. People live on the Gulf Coast because of the way of life there. They walk its beaches, sail and fish its waters, and daily draw mental and physical sustenance from what it offers. It is in their blood: a part of them.

As the nation celebrated, the first tar balls and foul patties ... washed up on the beaches of my hometown.
--Kathleen Koch

How do you compensate them for its loss? My brother, an avid recreational fisherman, was schooled in fishing the Gulf Coast waters at my father's knee. He has shared that love and respect for the water and the abundant bounty it offers with his four children. Every week, he e-mails me photos of them smiling broadly and holding their latest catch of crabs, flounder or speckled trout. As the waters open for fishing shrink to nothing, I know those photos and the smiles will stop.

BP promises it will make things right. Those I know and love on the Gulf Coast want to believe that. I want to believe it. But history, back to our nation's founding days, teaches us the "small people" -- as BP's chairman called Gulf Coast residents -- regularly have to fight for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness against those who would take it from them.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, I drew hope from a 1774 speech John Adams delivered in Massachusetts before heading south as a delegate to the first Continental Congress. "The meanest and lowest of the people are by the unalterable indefeasible laws of God and nature as well entitled to the benefit of the air to breathe, light to see, food to eat and clothes to wear as the nobles or the king. That is liberty. And liberty will reign in America."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kathleen Koch.