The Funny World of Bayou Oil Money

“Louisiana is a fresh-air mental asylum.”  — James Lee Burke (2006)

“Oil creates the illusion of a completely changed life, life without work, life for free. Oil is a resource that anesthetizes thought, blurs vision, corrupts.” — Ryszard Kapuściński (1982)


It seems that Houma, LA has been in the news a lot lately. That’s Houma, rhyming with “coma,” not “puma.”

In May 2014, Movoto ranked Houma #2 on their list of Most Exciting Cities in Louisiana, but Movoto has been whoring its listicle praise out to any profitable market since the Japanese bought it in 2013. More notably, the Houma-Thibodaux metropolitan statistical area made Forbes’ Top 10 Booming Small Cities List early last month, which rates growth in population, jobs, and personal income. Things are generally looking good for Houma.

Well, mostly.

The city also claims the Molinere boys (from the show Swamp People), who were arrested last year for beating a man with a beer bottle. Headline crime didn’t stop there. Last week, a Houma police officer shot and killed a 14 year old black kid after it was reported that armed men were entering houses in the area. Social media feeds exploded with anger and diatribes on equality, until it was discovered that the shooting officer was also black and the kid was armed. It’s a funny world we live in, but I’m not laughing.

Instead, I’ll laugh at this pool on the outskirts of Houma, LA.

Yes, this Crown Royal pool is pouring water into a hot tub shotglass.
Yes, this Crown Royal pool is pouring water into a hot tub shot glass.

This hilarious use of disposable income highlights the strange dichotomy between class and wealth in Houma, LA.

As of the 2010 Census, Houma proper had a higher 2008-2012 median household income ($46,393) than the state of Louisiana ($44,673). At first you might not care, but you must understand that most of Louisiana is extremely poor, so a $46k MHI is actually somewhat impressive.

The state itself has the 23rd highest GDP (larger than Israel) and the 29th highest per capita income in the US, which goes a long way in explaining why the statewide median income is as high as it is. Believe me, it can get much lower. Louisiana is home to 8 of the 100 poorest places in America, and their 2008-12 MHIs range between $13,693 and $19,172.

While not among the poorest, other cities in Louisiana demonstrate why Houma is such a promising boom town. Alexandria is larger than Houma, about 3 hours north, and had a 2008-12 MHI of $35,888. Hammond, which is smaller than Houma and half that distance, was at $31,406. The largest city in the state, New Orleans, is an hour east of Houma and had a 2008-12 MHI of $36,681. Shreveport, in the far NW corner, sat at $38,465, and Lake Charles, in the far SW corner, was $36,316.

Clearly, Houma is unique, but how so? It’s not as if Houma is the only city in Louisiana approaching the state’s MHI average. In fact, Mandeville exceeds it with an average 2008-12 MHI of $63,293, and St. Tammany Parish in general isn’t far off, at $60,813. These are staggering numbers that only makes sense when you consider that the parish itself is white-flight central, comfortably separated from the piss and shit in New Orleans streets by the longest* bridge in the world.

Houma, on the other hand, is in the bayou, and bayou life is something else, my friend. Haven’t you ever seen True Detective? The New Yorker wrote a 2006 article highlighting family life for young mothers in the depths of Louisiana swampland, and what it showed was basically a third-world wetland. Agrarian poverty throughout the Black Belt is one thing, but bayou penury includes mosquitoes.

So, how on earth can Monroe, home to the world headquarters of CenturyLink, have a 2008-12 MHI of $28,966, while Houma, whose largest employer is the parish-wide school board, is 60% more than that?

Two words: oil money.

These words are frequently found together in the same sentence. In fact, as words go, they’re basically best friends.

Oil money is all over the place in the bayou. Galliano ($44,563), Larose ($52,411), Cut Off ($54,643)…they’re all on the same stretch of highway running from Raceland to Grand Isle, the same highway that connects the rest of the world to Port Fourchon.

Port Forchon has been the hottest spot for oil rig jobs in the Gulf of Mexico since before 1981. It’s been said that if you’re a laborer who goes to Port Fourchon and can’t get a job, you should completely reevaluate yourself as a contributor to the American workforce.

And demand for these jobs is not diminishing. America’s new commitment to becoming a net exporter of oil means that the Gulf of Mexico (and Port Forchon in particular) is exploding with opportunity. While Terrebonne Parish seems to enjoy most of the immediate impact of oil money, one economic consultant credited Port Forchon with the entire state’s economic well-being, and I can assure you that without the oil revenue flowing in through that place, Louisiana would not have the 23rd highest GDP in the U.S.

All these riggers, laborers, and blue-collar ruffians along a single highway corridor has led to a clash of classes in the region’s capital city of Houma. On the one hand, you have the old money families who drip their coffee and vote. On the other hand, you have the people who show up on the Houma Police Department’s Facebook page.

What I noticed on that page was a lot of drug and DWI arrests, which might be prevalent in any given city, but tend to occur in working class suburbs or large urban areas. Drugs and DWIs are not supposed to be major problems in cities that exceed the state’s average median household income, and yet, there were also plenty of cases of assault, robbery, and even an attempted suicide. But seriously, though…this is America, land of the free, and a guy can’t even legally kill himself? Wtf.

What kind of drug culture exists in Mandeville, which looks like the nicest place in the world via the police Facebook page? Oh, those cops sponsor drug takeback drives where they go around collecting unwanted medications in huge bags. They happily pulled in over 85 lbs last time. Meanwhile, hot chicks are getting arrested for heroin possession in Houma.

Oil money has a long history throughout Louisiana. Grasshopper pumpjacks litter the state like orange groves in Florida or vineyards in the Napa Valley. Louisiana is among the ten most oil rich states in the country, with the 2nd most refineries and the 4th most natural gas preserves. Yet, the state is 49th in education, 48th in poverty, and 48th in quality of life.

This is the funny world we live in, but I’m still not laughing.






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