By Daniel Roth
May 29, 2010

Local businesses rake in cash from the cleanup, but fear the future.

FORTUNE — BP continued its efforts to plug its gushing deepwater well off the coast of Louisiana on Friday when I landed in New Orleans. I traveled here to see the beginning of what’s quickly becoming the largest oil cleanup in U.S. history—the BP (BP) spill already surpassed the Exxon Valdez disaster as the largest ever in the U.S.

As the country watches whether BP’s Top Kill method plugs the well, an equally critical question here is: how far along is the cleanup? The answer: it’s just the beginning. The company has spent $900 million on the disaster so far, according to BP spokesman Graham MacEwen on Friday. Analysts estimate costs rising to $5 billion to $10 billion — much of that involving containment, repair and litigation.

On my first day here I drove an hour and half west from New Orleans to a town of about 30,000 people called Houma, which is one of four Unified Command Centers that direct oil cleanup and containment crews to the coasts. (The response team posts daily updates to its operations here.)

On the drive from New Orleans, one of the AM radio shows simultaneously criticized President Obama, vilified BP, and announced the latest price for oil futures — a fair summation of many Louisianans’ feelings and concerns, I’ve found.

Thousands of workers in the past three weeks have flooded Houma and coastal towns along the Gulf. All of Houma’s hotel rooms are booked. In my search for a bed I met Maudrey Bergeron, 71, a lifelong Louisianan who grew up picking cotton in a family of 17. With her twin sister, Bergeron runs 25 bed and breakfasts in Houma and neighboring towns. She told me on Friday that her home’s three rooms were all occupied by BP contractors, and more overflowed into her other homes.

It’s been two weeks since the oil spill workers have started to crowd in, and in the 30-minute stretch we spoke, she answered another five calls. After stating the sober truth — “When a disaster strikes, I get rich” — she served me a free meal of meatloaf, bread, a piece of red velvet cake and a cup of coffee.

Like many Louisianans I met, she was frustrated. Her grandson is a shrimper who no longer has work. Her daughter’s boyfriend’s son has waited in lines for an oil spill contractor job without luck. “This has disrupted many lives down here,” she said over lunch.

Houma is a coordination area for areas further south where oil has made it into delicate marsh bordering the Gulf of Mexico. One of those towns is Cocodrie, one of 17 staging areas across the Gulf Coast where a boom is deployed to contain moving oil and where workers are dispatched. Located at the end of a two lane road leading through 15 miles of marsh and bayous is the Co Co Marina.

On Friday, there were more than 700 workers in Co Co Marina. Many of them were being paid $12-and-up an hour to clean oil off blades of grass. I met Nyx Cangemi of the US Coast Guard who had just returned from an airboat trip in the marshes on the edge of the Gulf near the Grand Bayou Bourbeux. Five boats carried 20 workers out to the small area. A receding tide left a thin coat of oil covering the area that laborers then methodically cleaned, using absorbent blankets to wipe, blade by blade, 3-foot-tall oil-covered grass.  “It’s back-breaking work,” Cangemi said.

Very true. And it’s only the beginning.

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