PORT SULPHUR, La. - Even before the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Jennifer Reddick was just getting by, living paycheck to paycheck as she tried to support six children on the $400 a week she made working part time as a deckhand and shrimp-net-maker.
Then BP's well blew out off the coast of Louisiana, scaring away tourists and shutting down fishing. Now she has no work and no money to buy her children toys or new clothes this Christmas. Charities are providing what they can, but it is hard for Reddick to take handouts.
"It was never easy before, but we could make it," said Reddick, 30, of Buris, a small fishing town along the Mississippi River. "I couldn't even afford Christmas this year for the kids."
For many people along the Gulf Coast, there will not be much holiday cheer this year.
It has been more than five months since the well was finally capped after spewing millions of gallons of crude into the gulf. Many shrimpers and oystermen are catching and selling only a fraction of previous hauls. Business owners who saw a summer of lost revenue are still struggling to pay their bills, and many had to lay off workers to make it through the slow winter months.
The Coastal Heritage Society of Louisiana has seen requests for help double. Many are coming from people who had never asked for assistance before.
"Even after Katrina, it wasn't like this," said Joannie Hughes, who along with Vickie Perrin has fanned out across the region to deliver Christmas dinners and toys to 112 families.
Perrin said the economic effect was just starting to spread through communities, from fishermen to grocery stores and restaurants.
"It's like throwing a pebble into a pond. And we're only on the first few ripples," she said.
The Second Harvest Food Bank has also seen a huge increase in families seeking first-time assistance. Since May, it has distributed more than 1 million pounds of food in 12 Louisiana parishes, the equivalent of 844,760 meals, to families hurt by the spill, spokeswoman Leslie Doles said.
That is in addition to the more than 9 million pounds of food delivered to poor people in those parishes during the same months, largely to families who would have needed assistance anyway.
After the spill, many people found temporary jobs on oil-cleanup crews, but those operations are winding down. Some who lost money because of the spill are still awaiting their first payment from a $20 billion fund set up by BP P.L.C. to compensate victims; others have been paid a fraction of what they say they lost.
The fund has paid more than 168,000 claimants $2.5 billion. More than 467,000 claims have been filed.
Recreational-fishing guide Mike Helmer received money from the fund to cover his summer of losses, but business is still down more than 50 percent, and he is struggling with whether to accept a final payout from BP that would require him to sign away his right to sue later.
"It's a gamble, because we just don't know what next year will be like, or the year after that," Helmer said. "So it's not a real good bet."
For him, Christmas just brings more worries. He is trying to keep the holidays as close to normal as possible for his wife and two children, but the stress of not knowing whether he will even be in business in the coming years is wearing him down.
"There's just a lot of things in the back of my mind," Helmer said. "We're not in the poverty line yet, but it's the future that worries us."
Reddick, the mother of six, said she was trying to keep it together for her children this sad Christmas.