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On the Gulf Coast, Fighting a Tide of Oil, Painful Memories and Dread

5 years ago
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NEW ORLEANS -- The great media machinery has descended on Louisiana's serrated Gulf of Mexico coastline, the wetlands scarred by 10,000 navigational canals cut by the oil companies over many years. All that gouging of saw grass and florabunda yields the disappearance of a marsh plot the size of a football field every hour. Flash back to Aug. 31, 2005: Hurricane Katrina's winds pushed rolling sheets of water into a huge funnel that surged across those soggy flatlands like a sluiceway into the holy city where jazz began, 80 percent of which went under water. Average flood level, four feet.

You saw the people on the rooftops begging for help.

In grade school, back in the Eisenhower days, we were taught that the Gulf of Mexico was 90 miles south of the city. Not long ago The Times-Picayune reported that if the erosion is not halted, the swallowed wetlands will advance the Gulf of Mexico to about 35 miles south of the city in roughly 15 years.

If that scenario is inexorable, a Category 3 storm similar to Hurricane Katrina might well drown the city, period. But the butchered coast is not today's story. The oil slick from Deepwater Horizon -- British Petroleum's blown-out oil rig deep in the Gulf -- is spreading a thick black sheen toward the wetlands, filling our days with a sense of déjà vu, twinning the after-traumas of Katrina with nightmare prospects of times to come.

Over the weekend, BP began drilling a relief well, which involves an 18,000-foot tunnel, starting 5,000 feet below the water surface, designed to pack heavy liquids into the original well in hopes of stanching the flow. That remedial mission is likely to take three months.

Meanwhile, in homes and businesses and crowded restaurants, amid the happy bustle of the Jazz and Heritage Festival, people watched television coverage with a palpable sadness for the fates of those who harvest the Gulf waters.

The Louisiana coast produces a third of the seafood Americans consume each year. The oil is heading into the fertile waters of shrimp, oysters and various fisheries. As dark showers rolled across the southern parishes and out into the Gulf, the oil spill meandered, widening like an ink blot, but had not reached the coast as of Monday night. The speculation all week was how long the commercial fishermen would have nothing to fish. Just this year? Next year? Three years?

More Oil Spill Coverage:

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Lawsuits taking shape to compensate the fishing industry have not stopped many of those with boats to jump into temporary work for BP, using the decks that usually teem with shrimp and crabs to transport thick boom-line coils, then unfurling them into the water to keep the lethal oil slick from spreading. Few people believe their valiant efforts will stave off the deepening catastrophe.

How many years will pass before the contamination is remediated? How long will the loss of marine life affect the economy? What is the impact of long-term pollutants? Such are the questions that course through our days.

Here are words from people in scattered places in recent days.

"Those po' fishermens down there gettin' all wiped out."

"If you're a defense lawyer for BP, you can pay your kid's college now."

"They never fixed the Lower Nine. How they goan fix the coast?"

"We're a colony for Big Oil."

"How many more days you think we can eat ersters?"

"They bringing oysters and shrimp in from Texas."

In a city renowned for its cuisine, the blanket of petroleum poison will hit hard. So far, shrimp and oysters are available, but everyone knows the government ban on harvesting the poisoned waters will soon force wholesale distributors and restaurateurs to pay import costs, which will be passed along to diners and consumers. That is a fact of market economics. What is harder to grasp is the gargantuan size of the oil slick, which exceeds the dimensions of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska a generation ago and will reportedly approach the size of Jamaica.

Estimates of the leakage have increased from 42,000 gallons to 210,000 gallons (5,000 oil barrels) per day, with no end in sight. As the spill moved through its second week, President Barack Obama announced that BP was responsible for the bulk of cleanup costs. No surprise there; but the suddenness and size of the spill suggest the cost for government emergency services will escalate in kind.

An upward revision of the leakage estimates put the flow rate at nearly 2 million gallons per day, according to Bob Thomas of Loyola New Orleans's Center for Environmental Communication. When Bob Thomas puts out a statement like that, the smart money listens. Blessed with a calm, orderly mind, at ease with facts, Thomas is equal parts environmentalist and moderate Republican, neither a basher of industry nor an enemy of capitalism. In a May 4 op-ed for the Times-Picayune, he articulated the dread that many people here have felt on a sort of intuitive grief level:
"Some threats are obvious: oiling of tens of thousands of nesting birds on our barrier islands, contamination of a higher number of transient migratory birds arriving from the south, killing of oyster reefs. . . .

"Some impacts are not so obvious. If coastal marshes are destroyed, the organic material they produce and release into estuaries that feed the bottom of the food chain disappears. We have no idea what will happen to plankton that floats below the oil in estuaries and at sea. Plankton will be stressed by the absence of organics from the marsh, and they may be directly killed by contact with oil."
The scene of an oil-drenched bird -- alive, confused -- on TV news drove home a subtler theme of the vulnerability ordinary people feel when catastrophic events overtake their days. The shared angst of 9/11 has long since passed, but we all remember where we were when we first saw jet planes smashing into the skyscrapers on a television screen. The oil spill is different. It is not universal; it's one of those horrible moments that make disaster voyeurs out of most of the nation, as people peer into another pool of civilization besieged, out there, somewhere -- but not my where. In 2001, we were all attacked.

To veterans of Katrina, a familiarity sets in, a rewinding of the mental track, remembering what it was like to flee the city, watching the town you loved transmogrify into a disaster byline for Anderson Cooper, Brian Williams, New Yorker essayists and the army of reporters who descended on smashed streets to capture the breakage of a city, shards of life, your town, the place that was. In the nomadic existence of motels or the homes of friends or strangers, across five weeks of fretful waiting for the waters to drain from a land mass eight times the size of Manhattan Island, one learned anew the meaning of citizenship, of community, hands across the table.

New Orleans has achieved a partial recovery. Miles of fractured streets still await repair; although a quarter of the pre-storm population of 457,000 has not returned, thousands of homes have been repaired, a sense of starting over surged when the Saints won the Super Bowl. And Mitch Landrieu, who was elected mayor by a huge margin, was inaugurated Monday. "The first step is to declare that we are no longer recovering, we are no longer rebuilding," he said. "Now, now we are creating."

Coming after the retarded pace of recovery under outgoing Mayor Ray Nagin, who insulted every possible constituency and left office with an approval rate of 25 percent, Mitch Landrieu's speech rang with an optimism the people yearn to share.

The mayor's image of resilient optimism, like water for the thirsty masses, competed on TV news with a bird drenched by oil, an image worth a thousand fears. Creating or rebuilding is what people do when they pick themselves back up. Down the Mississippi and out in the near precincts of the Gulf, as the fishermen on their boats tossed boom lines into the muck on the water, dark skies carrying rain and wind kept the slick at bay.

"Impacts not so obvious" lay in wait, the ache of a story to continue, so near to us, so far from you.
Filed Under: Oil Spill
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