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From the Wetlands in the Gulf, 'They Saw It Coming'

Nick Clark

Last October we were filming in precisely the area now threatened by the advancing oil slick.

I remember sitting in a police launch motoring through a parking lot in the sea for hundreds of boats. Line-upon-line of orange vessels and stubby tugs awaiting duty.

A veritable city of ships in the marshes - the supply headquarters for the Gulf of Mexico's oil industry.

Many of the boats were on standby, waiting for a disaster such as this. The communities, the oil companies, the coast guard, all knew this could happen sooner or later.

If you can say there's good thing about this event - it is that it happened within reach of an armada of containment vessels, ineffective though they seem to be.

We stood on a small sliver of beach nearby and looked out into the Gulf. There you can see an almost unbroken line of oil rigs along the horizon.

In the fading light, their burning flares almost like a chain of foreboding. Under the surface, a spidery network of pipes reach up from the seabed, through which endless barrels of oil constantly glug.

The support ships steam to and fro. It's a vast enterprise - the Gulf supplies up to 30 per cent of the USA's energy needs. Within a 60km radius of Port Fourchon, there are 600 platforms.

Now just one of them threatens an entire coastline.

We filmed in the bayous and inlets, chugging by collapsed communities, ripped apart by hurricanes like Katrina. Those people that stayed, still earning a living from a fecund sea. Shrimp, crab and fish species abound in these waters.

As you nose through the reeds there's a sudden explosion of wings and legs, as a startled Spoonbill erupts in the air. Pelicans cruise overhead, there's a smattering of lilies with purple flowers.

This is still an environmental haven - against the odds.

Indeed the wetlands of Louisiana have already been ripped apart by the oil industry.

Channels carved out of the marshes to create channels for navigation and canals for oil pipelines. Salt water flooded into this pristine environment and messed up the dynamics of nature.

Once-flourishing oak and cypress trees, quickly died as the fresh water disappeared. Their rotted roots couldn't hold the marshes together and the natural system collapsed.

To make matters worse, the Mississippi river no longer deposits millions of tons of sediment in this area as it has done for thousands of years. Its levees and walls prevent that.

Now a new slow black death may soon advance through those very channels and waterways opened up by the relentless quest for oil.

We filmed a group of Native Americans of Atakapa origin. They've lived off the waters of the bayous for more than a thousand years, hunting, fishing and trapping.

Over time, they've endured many a challenge on this explosive hurricane coast. But in the past they were helped by a natural defence.

When the wetlands were still intact, they formed a barrier to anything but the worst weather. Not any more.

And now there's nothing but open water to protect this coast from the enveloping slick.

For centuries the Atakapa people have lived with the ebb and flow of nature.

Last October they told me they were fighting for their very existence because of fellow man's bid to dominate the environment. God knows what they're thinking now.

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Nick Clark is a presenter and correspondent for Al Jazeera based in Doha.

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