Five Years Later...

For the past several nights I've been staying in a Super 8 in New Orleans 9th Ward. The 9th Ward is the area of New Orleans on the east side between the Industrial Canal, Lake Pontchartrain, and the Mississippi River. The part I'm staying in is called New Orleans East, and is just north of the Lower 9th Ward that was demolished during Hurricane Katrina. While people heard a lot about the Lower 9th, the truth is that the entire area was hit hard by the storm and still hasn't rebounded.

Driving down the road around here you can see whole shopping centers that have been closed for the past 5 years. On average it seems like every other building is abandoned. There are some parts of the Lower 9th I saw where entire neighborhoods are simply gone. Five years later and they're still gone. When you drive by and look around you can see roads that parallel each other, and driveways that lead to nowhere--except maybe to a pile of concrete and rubble.

All of this brings to mind two important points--first, that this region has just now started to come back from another epic catastrophe, only to now be hit by the largest unintentional marine oil spill in history. The second point is that Katrina demonstrated how restoring the wetlands isn't just an issue that affects wildlife and fishermen. An oft-cited rule of thumb is that 2.7 miles of wetlands reduce storm surges by one foot. According to the Sea Grant program at LSU, the answer is often more complicated than that, and depends on all sorts of things like the speed of the storm.

What is obvious is that the loss of 1,900 square miles of wetlands over the last century, due to a combination of regulating the Mississippi River and dredging canals for oil pipelines, has left places like New Orleans 9th Ward more vulnerable than ever when hurricanes do come. Living along the southeastern coast of the US has and will always come with a risk of flood and wind damage by hurricanes, but a concerted effort to restore the wetlands that have been lost over the past century could go a long way to making those risks a little less great, and making the lives of those living near the coast a little more bearable.

Charities and Rig Marshals...

Over the past couple of days I've traveled across the state meeting with experts involved in the oil spill. Yesterday morning I left Grand Isle and headed up to Baton Rouge to meet with Don Davis, the director emeritus of the Sea Grant program at Louisiana State University. The Sea Grant program has helped act as a liaison between shrimpers and fishermen in Louisiana and BP. They have extension agents, kind of like agricultural extension agents, spread throughout the Mississippi Delta listening to the concerns facing fishermen and offering advice where they can. One of the most troubling problems Don brought up was the fact that so many fishermen are paid in cash, and like most cash-based workers, many don't report their full income on their taxes.

BP's claims process rests on being able to prove how much income you would have been making if you'd been able to fish as usual, but since there's no paper trail most fishermen have no way of proving how much they've lost because of the spill. What that means for most of them is that they simply have no relief. Some have been able to get jobs working for BP to help on the clean up, but the pay for most is meager compared to what they could make on a good fishing day. Louisiana has two shrimping seasons, May for the white shrimp out in the Gulf, and August for the brown shrimp feeding in the inland estuaries. Since the spill happened in April, both seasons have been effectively knocked out, leaving fishermen with no source of income. Many have had to resort to using the Catholic Charity services, which are very active in the region, but for people who are used to supporting themselves and living highly independent lifestyles, the idea of having to beg for assistance or take orders from BP is a lot to ask.

This morning I met with Benny Puckett, the Chairman of the Committee for Plaquemines Recovery and an employee of the Parish President's office. It was obvious that Benny was frustrated with BP and with the bureaucratic nature of the clean up effort, but he was particularly proud of how many of the ideas that have worked so far came from listening to the suggestions of local people. Things like corralling the oil between ships towing boom so that it could be scooped up, or the use of "jack boats" as floating docks, and even the controversial building of berms along the coast to keep the oil out of the estuaries.

While Benny was obviously unhappy with how BP's actions had ruined the economy of his Parish, he was equally upset about the idea of a moratorium on deepwater offshore drilling. Rather than doing the equivalent of "grounding every airliner anytime a single plane goes down," he suggested the problem really lay with the competition between safety people and money people on rigs. While safety concerns sometimes won out, all to often concerns about making the rig financially feasible trumped them. His suggestion was that the federal government should assign "rig marshals" who would live on board offshore rigs and monitor safety issues so that they could make the final decision, rather than it being a competition within the company operating the rig.

New Orleans and Grand Isle...

At 8:00 PM the heat index was 106 on Grand Isle, Louisiana. I spent Saturday night with friends in New Orleans, wandering on Bourbon, Frenchmen, and Decatur. In addition to seeing the normal array of brass bands and drunk people yelling for beads, someone went past us walking a miniature horse down Bourbon Street, like they'd taken their dog out for a late night walk. While people tend to think of New Orleans as a debauched party town, it's that exact environment that has helped nurture the plethora of musicians, artists, and writers that has made the city such a cultural center for the United States--and really the world.

On Sunday I met up with Rafael Quezada, who's writing and producing a documentary on the oil spill and will be traveling with me for the next few days. After eating lunch in New Orleans we started heading down to Grand Isle to campout and see what we could of the spill's effect on the island. Grand Isle is generally a popular summer destination for people in Louisiana, and is one of the only beaches in the state accessible by car. All along the road leading there were signs like "Louisiana: Sportsman's paradise nightmare" and "We can't swim and we can't fish--how the hell are we supposed to feed our kids BP?"

When we got to the island we knew that the beaches were closed, but hoped we'd at least be able to get close enough to see the work being done. We saw an empty parking area between two houses that ended in a boardwalk leading out to the beach, so we pulled in and saw some guys hanging out in the shade under one of the houses (almost all of the buildings here are built on stilts in the hopes that they won't flood during the periodic hurricanes that batter the thin strip of land). We asked if it was ok if we parked there and they told us that they didn't know but that it was cool with them, and even told us to pull the car up under the shade of the house.

We walked out onto the beach and saw tents and heavy equipment spread out down the shore in both directions. About half the beach was open, but an orange fence had been erected on the high tide line to keep people out of the actual work area. We wandered down the beach until we got to a tent full of clean up workers. I mentioned how hot it was and all of them were quick to offer water or Gatorade if we wanted to cool down. I'd only been walking down the beach for at most half a mile over about ten minutes and was drenched in sweat--they'd been out since before 6 in the morning and would stay until about 6 in the evening, working on and off in biohazard suits shoveling oiled sand into trash bags. They'd come from all over: San Jose, Via de Texas, Houston, San Antonio, and Arizona. All of them were either black or Hispanic, except for one white guy wearing a BP hat who said he couldn't answer any questions, but seemed to be the boss of their crew.

Later that evening we drove along one of the marshes behind the island and stopped to take a picture of a row of telephone poles that had at one point been sunk into dry land, but now were completely surrounded by water. While Rafael worked on getting a good shot of those, I wandered over to the other side of the road to take some pictures of the grasses and a string of dead trees further out into the marsh. As I got up close to the water I looked down and saw a film of oil wrapping around the shore in wispy tendrils. In the scheme of things it wasn't all that much oil, but it showed just how difficult the task of finding and cleaning up all the oil will be.

Oil and Water

After two and a half days and 1500 miles I made it to New Orleans. I spent Thursday night with family in Shawnee, Ok, and then last night in Lafayette, LA--ironically in a part of town known as "Oil Center." I'm preparing to teach a class at the University of Minnesota that's on the oil spill--but I want it to be about a lot more than just that. The course is titled "Oil and Water: The Gulf Oil Spill of 2010," and what I want to do is explore how these two resources are intimately connected in the past and present of the Gulf coast. Throughout the next 10 days I'm going to be meeting with people who are either involved in the recovery, affected by the spill, or who have worked in areas like coastal restoration, as well as trying to see as many of the affected areas as I can in order to be able to bring some of that first-hand experience back with me to the classroom.

This morning I drove from Lafayette to visit a couple of towns south of Houma, LA, that are at the very fringes of the state, Montegut and the Pointe-Au-Chien Indian community. I plan on meeting with tribal representatives later in the week, but for today I just wanted to get my bearings and take a few pictures (I was using an actual film camera today, but will get some pictures up soon). In both places I followed the roads as far as they would go, both essentially deadending into the Gulf of Mexico. I drove down to Montegut first, and noticed that things seemed much quieter than they should. It was the middle of the day on Saturday, during the summer, but hardly anyone was around. I passed a marina on my way through Montegut and noticed it has a large "closed" sign out front. I drove down to Pointe-Au-Chien after that. On the way into town there's a sign up that says "Bienvenue, Pointe Au Chien Tribal Community."

The name of the town comes from the many Oak trees that grow in the area. While some still remain along the road, the water surrounding the town is littered with the ghostly remains of dead oak trees, killed off by the intrusion of salt water into the wetlands--water that was brought there by the dredging of canals for oil pipelines. I followed the highway until it ended at a marina, but once again this one had a "closed" sign prominently placed at the entrance. I stopped and took a few pictures, and could see people with hard hats walking around inside. On my way back out of town I stopped at a small grocery store to get a drink and pick up some other supplies. It seemed like the clerk kind of eyed me wearily when I walked in, but after saying hello and chatting with her a bit she seemed to warm up quickly. As I was checking out I asked if she knew why the marina was closed--she sighed and said "yes I do--BP's got it."

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