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.