With the upcoming five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (August 29), the Gulf Coast is bracing for another media onslaught.
Network anchors all have their tickets (each competing for turf with Anderson Cooper along New Orleans’s Riverwalk), CNN is broadcasting a two-part special (“New Orleans Rising”) and next Monday/Tuesday HBO will air Spike Lee’s four-hour documentary, “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise.”
As if the place hadn’t gotten enough attention during the past four-plus months, the Gulf States can’t stay out of the news these days, which is a good thing. Given the continuing debate over just how much oil is still stewing in the ocean it deserves to be in the headlines for a long time to come.
As I predicted a few days ago, every day seems to bring a new estimate on just how much of the oil spewed by BP is still out there. The statistics grow evermore confusing. The government says “74 percent of the oil is gone.” A University of Georgia team claims “79 percent is still there.” And today a report in Science – which the Times calls “the most ambitious paper to emerge yet” – casts grave doubt on the government stats and suggests there is a huge plume of oil two miles long floating beneath the surface, which will pose problems for the ocean, wildlife and man for months, possibly years, to come.
While that chatter dominates Gulf-related headlines, I think now is an appropriate time to reflect on all the other bad shit impacting the region on top of the multi-million gallons of crude that were recklessly dumped into it.
The Deepwater Horizon explosion and sinking was one of two sizable man-made disasters that will have long-lasting impact on Louisiana shores. The other goes back to 1927, when man (i.e. the Army Corps of Engineers) began his failed attempt to “control” the Mississippi River. The twin debacles, combined with a historically corrupt and inattentive state government, has assured that despite the cantankerous quality of life that makes the state the most unique of all fifty is also treated like America’s toilet bowl.
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)
Sulphur Grove, Louisiana – At 4:30 a.m. a pair of sport fishing boats being launched on the edge of Barataria Bay on a humid morning – where fishing has been banned for more than two months — is made more odd thanks to the backlighting of a partial lunar eclipse.
P.J. Hahn, a one-time Texas cop turned Louisiana politician, steps down out of his pick-up truck lugging a waterproof box filled with camera gear and a plastic bag full of clothes to protect against sun and wet, but not oil.
Before his feet hit the ground, he’s storytelling. “I dove into the sea just days after the spill began,” he starts, “and was cleaning oil out my ears for three days afterwards. The wetsuit I wore that day? I took it home and soaked it in my bathtub for a day trying to get the oil out of it, but ended up throwing it out. I would never have gotten the oil out and it smelled like hell.”
The very hands-on Director of Coastal Restoration for Plaquemines Parish – the 80-mile long peninsula jutting into the Gulf south of New Orleans — has no hesitancy plunging hands, feet, even his head into the oily mess that continues to grow in the complexity of marshes that stretch for miles to the Gulf. He only wishes there was more he could do.
For the rest of my dispatch and more photos and video, go to takepart.com.
Morgan City, Louisiana – Driving old Highway 90 paralleling the Gulf Coast under a vast, super-heated blue sky filled with cumulus it’s almost possible to forget the horror that continues to gush beneath the nearby sea.
But the man-made scenery that lines the road – warehouse buildings, one after another, parking lots filled with pick-up trucks and SUVs — brings me right back to the connective tissue that links all of Louisiana: Oil.
Let’s be clear: There is really only one industry in Louisiana. Yes, fishing generates a couple billion dollars a year. And tourism, most of it focused around New Orleans and conventions, brings in more than $6 billion a year.
But all of that pales when stacked next to the $70 billion a year the oil business generates in the state and the 320,000 jobs it creates. A rigger with a high school education can, with overtime, make $100,000 a year. When workers come home from the rigs reeking of oil, they chide their buddies at the bar: “Smell that money!”
(For the rest of my dispatch and new video blogs from the Gulf at takepart.com.
Venice, Louisiana – Along the fifty-miles of Highway 23 leading south from New Orleans to the fingertip of land that ends in marshes outside of this fishing-and-oil town are reminders of disasters past and pending.
Remnants of wood-frame homes never rebuilt since the hurricanes five years ago. Cement slabs where entire sub-divisions of brick homes used to stand. New homes and workplaces built since the storms sit two, six, even twenty feet above ground, supported on cinder block , sturdy posts of brick or 4 x4s, prepared in advance for whenever the next flood waters race beneath rather than through them. Dozens of businesses shuttered, never to reopen.
Looking months and years into the future, given the still-looming crisis building in the Gulf of Mexico each day as thousands more barrels of crude are added to the mix, it’s easy to imagine many of the homes and businesses still standing as vacant, abandoned shells. Once oil reaches the marshes and coastal beaches of Louisiana – as it is right now threatening in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida – for many years after there won’t be work for the shrimpers and seafood processors, charter boat fishermen and the dependent businesses (restaurants and bars, bait shops and hardware stores) lining the four-lane. For the rest of my dispatches from Louisiana, see takepart.com.
The Times-Picayune in New Orleans reports that some of our friends in Louisiana were part of hearings recently in New Orleans held to vet plans for a national ocean policy, which would benefit the Gulf of Mexico region more than anywhere in the U.S. Chris Kirkham reports: “Several high-level Obama administration officials heard more than three hours worth of testimony from environmental groups, fishing organizations, scientists and the oil and gas industry about development of a national policy aimed at protecting the oceans and streamlining government management.
Comments for the national ocean policy task force reflected the wide-ranging pressures on the Gulf of Mexico’s resources: oil and gas pipelines and drilling activity; pollution from the Mississippi River creating a vast “dead zone” in the Gulf; overfishing that puts some species at risk; and the large-scale collapse of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, which provide a nursery for Gulf seafood and serve as the infrastructure for ports and energy production.
“Over the past 20 years or so, we have watched as the dead zone has grown, and no funding has come down to do anything about it. We have watched as our coast has disappeared,” said Tracy Kuhns, who lives in the Lafitte area and runs Louisiana Bayoukeeper, a coastal advocacy group. “It’s not just a wetlands, it’s not just a swamp out there. People live there. When we lose all that we lose our culture, and our livelihoods.”
Obama has asked the ocean policy task force to draft an ocean policy plan by Dec. 9. Monday’s meeting in New Orleans was one of six the group is holding across the United States. The specifics they will address in their plan are unclear at this point. An interim report from the task force issued last month mentions pollution from rivers and the need to better integrate the way federal agencies manage ocean resources.
“Right now it’s pretty obvious the oceans are becoming increasingly crowded places, and we’re seeing more and more conflicts across that space,” said Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who is on the ocean policy task force, as well as a new federal inter-agency working group to address Louisiana’s coastal land loss. “That will inevitably require doing things differently, but what that is we don’t really know.”
Although Monday’s meeting was tailored to ocean policy, the bulk of the comments focused on coastal collapse in Louisiana.
“The nation cannot continue to watch Louisiana disappear. Thinking big and thinking bold is urgent,” said Robert Twilley, associate vice chancellor for research at Louisiana State University and a professor of oceanography and coastal sciences. “Supporting aggressive actions that are not paralyzed by conflicting federal policy should be of the highest priority.”
Dealing with coastal restoration should not be viewed as an either-or decision by policymakers in Washington, said Denise Reed, a coastal researcher at the University of New Orleans.
“It’s not about a choice between navigation and ecosystem restoration, it’s about interdependence. We want to do navigation on this river and we want to do oil and gas, ” she said. “Louisiana is undoubtedly in a crisis, and we don’t need short-term fixes, we need deliberative thinking about what the next century holds.”
Many recreational and for-hire fishing groups cautioned they should be included upfront in any plans the federal government has for ocean conservation.
“There’s a lot of people who make their living on the water here, ” said Gary Williams, a charter boat captain in Mississippi. “Whatever we do, we need to make sure that we can continue to do so.”
Jim Grant, a representative with oil company BP America, said any changes should consider effects on the Gulf’s energy economy.
“We caution the task force to carefully weigh policies that may set up exclusionary zones, disrupt the (federal government’s) leasing program or disrupt opportunities for economic growth.”
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Chris Kirkham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3786.