If British Petroleum were an enemy on a mission to despoil
our coastal waters, they are executing a perfect war plan.

BP has dodged regulations which could have prevented this crisis, yet ironically
has imposed its own regulations that hobble relief efforts at every level. BP is clearly
calling the shots, as the Coast Guard defers to their lead and the federal government
struggles to establish any effective command and control.

These are the experiences and reflections of one person who came to help this embattled area and was turned away...

Monday, June 14, 2010

X-ray vision

Mourning a loved one is a changing experience.  It is impossible to fully and deeply understand until one has been through it.  I have lost my father unexpectedly in surgery, my best friend to suicide, and two devoted old cats whose ages added up to 40 years of warm friendship.  All those deaths presented different emotional elements.  I can't honestly say which one was most painful, for they were all unpleasantly unique.  But I had developed x-ray vision after each death.  I could share just a few words with someone and I knew instantly whether they had been through the same grief I was experiencing.  Often I could tell just by looking in their eyes.  Now that I have been back in Pennsylvania for a couple of days, I have developed the same x-ray vision.  Being down in the gulf region, I could sense the pain in many of the locals I spoke with - sometimes just by seeing their faces mirror my own feelings of anguish and loss.  Up here, there seems just a tinge of detachment.  That's not a judgment - don't get me wrong.  Most everyone feels infuriated over the inability to manage this.  They are frustrated that over the past 56 days, the news always got worse, expectations always got dashed, efforts always got bungled, and attempts to measure or even characterize what we were dealing with always escaped description.  But to understand the full depth of pain I saw in Louisiana, you need to understand Louisiana.  You need to understand what this area means to them.

There is the economic aspect

The gulf coast regional cuisine is all about local seafood.  In fact, it is hard to tell which word - local or seafood - deserves more emphasis.  It is both that are being threatened.  Restaurants known for local seafood suddenly find themselves without the very basis of what they are about.  How can you redefine Gallatoire's, or K-Paul's, or Commanders Palace, or Antoine's or any of the incredibly vast number of eateries from the world famous to the secret local favorites?  And with a slow national economy, a still-recovering infrastructure after Katrina and Rita and Gustav, and now a reduced influx of tourists due to the bad news from the spill, the only perfect recipe now seems to be for economic disaster.  Add to this the fact that the unholy alliance between the gulf coast and the oil industry has changed, too.  Small towns such as Houma and Venice are home to vast heliports which commute oil rig workers back and forth, and attest to the importance of the oil industry to the regional economy.  When President Obama declared a drilling moratorium in the wake of the Horizon/Deepwater disaster, the outcry from locals was loud and clear - it was just another nail in the coffin of economic misfortunes.  It seems ironic that this mutual interdependence between big oil and the gulf coast ends up with the former threatening to pick up it's rigs and play elsewhere, leaving behind a horrendous mess.  The oil companies appear not so committed to this relationship to stand with the regional communities who have supported them, stay, and make things right.  The moratorium showed just how fickle they can be, and their most lasting legacy still pours into the open gulf at over a million gallons a day.

There is the cultural aspect

Seafood is not just an economic factor here.  It is a way of life.  Shrimpers, oyster harvesters, deep sea fishermen, etc - these involve traditions passed down through generations.  It is a culture with an intimate connection to the sea, to the marshes, to the swamps.  It is often a hard life in which an entire year's income is earned in a brief 3-4 month period.  The waiting game is played for months until the next harvest.  There are four such seasons on the gulf coast: crawfish, oyster, crab and shrimp.  Of the four, three are intrinsic to the gulf, while the other - crawfish - are found in the freshwater estuaries.  We are at the tail end of crawfish season and the start of oyster season.  At a time when the locals rejoice with festivals to say hello to the gulf, they suddenly find themselves saying goodbye to it - possibly for a longer time than anyone dare think about.  And as the industry collapses, so does the culture.  It threatens to be a true American tragedy, especially maddening when one considers that it may all disappear because of the failure of a single piece of hardware - a blow-out preventer, coupled with a company's apparent disregard for safety practice or even safety backups.

There is the environmental aspect

The unspeakable suffering to wildlife is difficult to fathom, painful to contemplate.  As I write this, animals are unable to maintain warmth, unable to stay afloat, unable to breath, unable to surface, and suffer sickening and slow deaths.  Billy Nungesser, the outspoken President of Plaquemines Parish,  took a group of reporters into an oil-soaked marsh and exclaimed that boating in here at any other time the fish were jumping.  In a place normally teaming with life, there wasn't a sound, a movement, not even a mosquito.  Just a black quiet sheen.  Everywhere.

So I sit here in Pennsylvania, but I know the grief in Louisiana.  I read the bad news here, but I feel the heartbreak there.  Billy was on the news again this evening, speaking with Anderson Cooper.  I looked in his sad eyes.  Even from here my x-ray vision was working.  He was lamenting the calls he fielded from a radio program based in the UK, home of British Petroleum.  Many of the callers were outraged over the bad rap that BP is suffering in the US press, and many of them expressed dissatisfaction with Mr. Nungesser himself about his own public comments about BP.  Billy asked them to come over, stick their hand in the thick oil resting in the marshes, and perhaps they might understand our loss.  I see his point - it would be like giving them x-ray vision.