A Slow Motion Katrina: Notes from the BP Catastrophe
July 18th: I left New Orleans yesterday. On my way to the airport, I saw the front page of the Times-Picayune screaming "Leak Stopped." Half of me aches for this to be true, but I'm terrified that the rest of the country will officially wipe its hands and forget, even while the nightmare keeps unfolding.
It's been hard not to feel that way these last couple weeks while walking the torn roads of New Orleans, where five years after Katrina, the reconstruction still hasn't come though everyone else has moved on.
The Louisiana wetlands are transcendently gorgeous, and we're losing them. South of Belle Amir, heading towards Grand Isle, you travel for miles between lush sugarcane fields and the wide bayou fringed in cattails and elephant-ears, till cultivation gives way to marshes. Utterly flat, fragmented between land and water, they could go on forever. Except they're rapidly disappearing. Multiple people have told me that they could still be saved if the political will was summoned to implement river re-engineering schemes to replenish the silting that happened naturally until humans monkeyed with the Mississippi. In the 50's, oil companies dredged canals and laid pipe through the marshes as the state sold itself away for cheap to the industry. As Louisiana's economy and political machines entangled themselves with oil, short-sighted and profit-driven engineering and extraction began destroying the land.
In Lafourche Parish, heading towards the ground zero of the oil's landfall, dead oak trees poke up through the marshes. Oaks are warrior trees who can survive almost anything but salt water. After Katrina, when the spreading giants on New Orleans' wide avenues returned to life, I thought they were the indicator that life will persist. One of my companions, a Louisianan activist named Jennifer, tells me that marsh trees can survive serious storm winds, but these died before or during Katrina from saltwater intrusion. We've thrown the balance so far off that even the oaks can't endure it.
Cover-up or Clean-up?
One highway stretches through the 30-mile expanse of Grand Isle, a narrow island that became the first landfall of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Hand-painted signs along the roadside rip into BP, one raging "Can't fish or swim how the hell are we supposed to feed our kids BP?" and another depicting a tarry Spongebob saying "What's an oil plume?"
From the road, the beach is blocked from view by dunes, but you can see the white tops of tents and motionless cranes parked on the beach. At the end of Grand Isle, the public beach facilities have been converted into cleanup operations. BP has several massive, empty tents in the parking lot, air conditioning hoses attached to generators. There are two small cleanup crews raking sand into giant plastic bags on the beach, just a couple pockets of activity along this 30-mile stretch of beach dotted with machinery, tents, giant floodlight stands, and pyramids of sand.
We're in BP's Zone 14, where last week orange "tiger booms" lined the water. We walk out on the public fishing pier and watch the tide roll in and out over tarballs that resemble cat turds. Rainbow sheen glistens on the water under the pier like a parking lot after heavy rain. The orange waves rolled in here last week, but today there's nothing so photogenic-- hence our access. I can't smell anything funny, but I have a cold and barely can smell the ocean itself. Hundreds of people are being seen in the emergency rooms of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi hospitals with respiratory, skin, and internal symptoms from exposure and inhalation. Today and tomorrow, in St. Bernard Parish, people will collect 31 independent and verified sightings of oil, in the waters and on the marshes and shoreline, some of it submerged.
Tiger booms are a set of three long inflatable bladder lines stacked into a pyramid, then floated out on the surface where they proceed to do nothing at all if not correctly arranged to channel oil into a collector. This week BP has managed, astoundingly, to actually dial down the effectiveness. Thin white floating strings that look as wide as my arm wiggle back and forth in the tide, most of them fixed by one end only, for a couple hundred feet of this 30-mile beach. It's so insulting. I can't even imagine how you could crop this into a photo-op.
BP dumped 2 million gallons of Corexit, a chemical banned in European countries, in the Gulf of Mexico over the last 3 months. It's called a dispersant but acts as a submergent, sinking the oil out of sight and into deeper layers of marine life, and creating underwater plumes of oil up to 22 miles long. While the compound "disperses" nothing, surface burnings are releasing the chemical stew of oil and Corexit into the winds. It's one of the more horrifying and short-sighted tactics in BP's "out of sight" campaign.
BP is creating and manuevering loopholes to limit their liability, guard their money, desert the damage and take control of the reparations process. Scientists estimated the gusher at 35-60,000 barrels a day. Without knowing the actual volume, efforts to hold BP to any minimal standard of accountability is very difficult. At the same time, BP is manipulating the claims structure, by "creating an escrow account is moving what is a right under Federal law into a discretionary zone," according to attorney Monique Harden of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights.
"They're just doing it for PR," says a woman from Ocean Springs. She moved there after Katrina flooded her out of New Orleans, and commutes over to help with a civilian cleanup project. She explains to us that BP is only present on the public, visible beach. All the residential areas and mangroves around the other side of the island are fending for themselves. Volunteers led by a birder and a park ranger are cleaning off 542 hermit crabs from the oiled and abandoned wetlands. Most of the volunteers are teenagers, and they explain they were just trying to figure out something that distressed Gulf kids could be involved in. Their operation consists mostly of multiple trays of water and lots of latex gloves; it doesn't look any more promising for the Grand Isle hermit crab population than the oysters, shrimp, fish, birds, turtles, or anything else living in and off the water (including humans). The birder volunteer coordinator tells us about seeing sick dolphins last week. Jennifer, whose momma is also a southern Louisiana birder, tells us her mother heard about the plans the Department of Fish and Wildlife drew up for BP for a recovery plan for each species affected. The "plan" for bears entailed BP buying two high-powered rifles (not tranquilizer guns) in the event that an oiled brown bear is discovered.
Recently, BP relaxed its lockdown on parts of Grand Isle. Although they still threaten felony charges and $40,000 fines for approaching their boats or booms, credentialed journalists now supposedly have greater access to cleanup sites. We continue to hear about police and Coast Guard running reporters off, explaining they're under BP orders, calling into question why BP's authority supercedes that of these towns' mayors and sheriffs. Today we can cross the dunes and walk on the top third of the beach, but the orange fencing stops us well before any of the uselessly beached booms. We access the beach near several military jeeps parked under empty vacation homes, and walk right up to a constellation of heavy machinery arrayed on a massive pallet with a black rubber moat. A car-sized propane tank is hooked up to a number of steel boxes and funnels, attached to a small oil tank.
Several contractors for an unnamed oilfield company are locking up the site for the day-- and by locking, I mean fastening the gate with plastic chains to a perimeter of plastic fencing. They're significantly more willing to talk than we'd expected, given how 10 days earlier the sheriff had run people out upon sight.
"This is the big cleaning experiment," says one of the contractors, who's from Lafayette. "Our company cleans cuttings, so BP contracted us to adapt the equipment for cleaning sand." Will it work? "Oh, I'm very confident. Not for the first run, not for the next two weeks, but then we'll tweak it. This is the first station, the test." He says this is one of several sites where this system is set up along Grand Isle, and if it works they'll build sites along Alabama's coast too. "We were supposed to start today but they're still doing tests," he said, assuring us that the scientists are working overtime to make sure the cleaning process will also remove the dispersant. Oil separated from the sand will be siphoned off into the 2,000 liter tank, and then the sand is returned to the beach.
"This is the largest enviromental disaster in U.S. history, and possibly worst cleanup in U.S." says Rose Braz from the Center for Biological Diversity.
Another Chapter in Militarized Disaster "Relief" as a Door to Profit
We try to visit Port Fourchon, at the other end of Grand Isle, but run into a checkpoint admitting only "official" vehicles. This is how we're told it looks in Cocodrie and Venice, the other epicenters of the cleanup operations: locked down. At the Port Fourchon checkpoint, public schoolbuses are picking up workers. One Jefferson Parish bus has a handwritten sign in the windshield reading "Ashland Tent City." The workers we see are mostly Latino and African-American, and look exhausted, and I wonder how many of them are already sick. BP has been hiring some local maritime and oil workers, and/or their boats, at drastically reduced wages. Oil workers are also working way below their payscale, especially those who are the more specialized laborers and make better money than most Louisianans. Now we're hearing that BP's own data reveals only 28% of claimants are getting anything at all out of them.
BP's treatment of undocumented laborers is very familiar from Katrina rebuilding: stealing wages, abusing contracts, and threatening deportation. The New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice exposed reports from immigrant workers that ICE agents ran racial profiling checkpoints and roundups at the cleanup centers in St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish. BP has also been continuing the tradition of using slave labor in the form of prisoners. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country, and 70% of the people it locks up are African-American men. The state runs Angola, the largest maximum-security prison in the country, on the grounds of a former slave plantation, and provides unpaid workers to state entities and companies including BP.
Port Fourchon has a directory board at the turnoff to the docks which lists every oil company I've ever heard of and several I haven't. In the convenience store, I talk to two National Guard soldiers who have been there since May. They say there are 6,000 National Guard in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, 2,500 in Florida, and more being deployed.
"90% of what we're doing for BP is just for PR," they say, echoing others. They're heartily unimpressed with BP's planning, or inability to stop the actual gusher. The tiger booming was useless, exposed as such with the storms, and most of the efforts have been directed at image rather than effectiveness. The only exception they note is the same one people on Grand Isle mentioned; some civilians on Elmer's Island got ahold of Guard support to build up stone and sand dams to keep the oil out of the wetlands. Andrew calls these "land bridges." BP had nothing to do with this initiative, which I haven't heard about through the news at all, but apparently has been useful.
Losses Bigger Than We Can Calculate
I knew that southern Louisiana has a very large Vietnamese population, but I didn't and still don't fully understand the unique multiethnic spread of communities living with and off the water on the Gulf Coast there. The United Houma Nation and other indigenous people are still rebuilding after Katrina and Rita. Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian immigrants all brought their maritime traditions. Cajuns, newer-comers than First Nations people but long settled, have developed culturally in direct and unique relationship with that land. They are artisanal workers, who harvest seafood on a small scale using very old, successful, sustainable methods. They can't just transplant and they can't just absorb into industrial scale operations. People are leaving if they can, or staying and risking illness. The coast's culture and communities are being devastasted.
Catherine, a New Orleanian, is a doctor who did emergency medical work in the flooded city post-Katrina. She tells me she's seeing the same things coming into the ER now from the BP spill that she did then. We read reports of children with rectal bleeding in Pensacola. In Venice, which like Grand Isle is about 50 miles from the Deepwater Horizon rig, even the EPA has admitted measuring dangerous levels of hydrogen sulfide, benzene, and other toxics in the air. People in New Orleans have been ill for months. In Alabama, people are reporting chemical burns from rain. ER patients and water testing have exhibited such high levels of propylene glycol (a minor ingredient in Corexit) that the actual concentration of dispersant in the air and ocean is a terrifying unknown.
Mental as well as physical health is straining. An organizer from the Peoples' Institute for Survival and Beyond in New Orleans, lives in Plaquemines Parish. He and others are trying to bring mental health work skills into the communities there; not just dispatch professionals to volunteer in the disaster zone, but build up the local capacity. Unsurprisingly, reports of depression, domestic violence and suicides are increasing.
Name the Destroyed Dreams
On Grand Isle, we visited a graveyard built by a Cajun fisher family. 101 white crosses bear the names of what they and the neighbors they consulted will miss. A header above the graveyard reads "In Memory of All That is Lost Courtesy of BP and the Federal Government."
Handpainted on the crosses: Sand between my toes. Stargazing. Snowy egret. Yellowfin tuna. Frogs croaking. Summer rain.
This graveyard makes it more real to me than anything has. I can almost hear their voices.
Standing in this graveyard, Jennifer, a southern Louisianan, says, "I love my people. Look, there's both shrimp creole and shrimp etouffe. Trout meuniere and trout almandine."
The level of detail about what people are losing in their lives-- not just basic rights like drinkable water, breathable air, homes and jobs and health-- but peoples' delight in their land and love for their lives... this is not in the news.
Outsiders like me are challenged to understand and learn from how this multiethnic community exists in, such deep connection to this land, these waterways, these lifeways. As in New Orleans, culture and livelihood are so tied to place. People rebuilt after Katrina and Rita and many previous hurricanes, and many are fighting tooth and nail to stay now. Their fight is inspiring...and enraging, because this devastation is utterly manmade and the people who caused it have names and addresses.
Digging Out from Under the Oil: Gulf Residents Fighting for Their Lives
I came down to the coast because I needed to make it real for myself, and to see if I could carry anything back of use. I also went because I held this sharp kernel of fear that I need to say goodbye to Southern Louisiana, to the lovely endless horizon of water and land patchworked together, the oaks and the egrets. Dream country. Nightmare country, spiked with oilworks as far as you can see in any direction.
At the last New Orleans Organizers' Roundtable, Monique Harden from Advocates for Environmental Human Rights handily summed up one of the BP/Katrina connections with "We're an expendable area not worth protecting. And if you rise up, here's the police." The wealth (and destruction) that has been extracted not just from the land and ocean, but from working-class and poor people in this state; from the contemporary plantation of Angola State Prison, to the destruction of public housing post-Katrina, to the savageness of the oil industry... it makes my head and heart ache.
So many New Orleanians told me "it feels like a slow-motion Katrina,"..."I think we're mostly in denial," ... "this feels like the winter of 2005 after the flood," or other variations. In some ways, there feels there is a huge vacuum where massive community and national mobilizations should be. The recent U.S. Social Forum showed a very low level of discussion and focus on the BP spill, even as a symptom of the larger issues many participants are committed to.
But many local people are indeed mobilizing. Organizations like Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans, the Workers Center for Racial Justice, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Louisiana Justice Institute, and more have been taking action, speaking out, organizing, documenting, advocating, supporting, and fighting back. Fisher and shrimper folks in the southern parishes who before April had never considered themselves activists, never contemplated organizing press conferences or going after an oil company, have stepped rapidly forward into their power as community organizers fighting for their people and place. In New Orleans, it's in the public dialogue differently because people smell it, just ate possibly their last oysters, or have family sick or out of work in the coastal parishes. You can't go a day without seeing another anti-BP shirt, or some punk in a coffeeshop handing you a flyer on Corexit. Twenty organizations just came together to support the proposed Gulf Coast Oil Spill Legal Liabilities and Claims Act of 2010 in Congress right now.
This fightback takes bravery in a state that's drowning in crude. Its politics are so entangled in such a deep matrix of control by the oil companies. For decades, Louisiana has been selling itself out to these companies, to the oil and war industries, and now the economic survival of so many of its peoples has been made dependent on these same industries that are destroying everyone's longterm ability to survive. This week's big news is that Northrop Grumann just announced it will be cutting 5,000 jobs at its shipyard outside New Orleans. In a state that was impoverished before BP destroyed thousands of peoples' livelihoods, the loss of 5,000 positions and the associated jobs supported by those incomes will have a massive impact. 100,000 people work in Louisiana's offshore drilling and its supportive jobs, without even counting drilling operations on land.
BP is one of the biggest suppliers of oil to the U.S. military, and Northrup Grumann is one of the major U.S. war profiteering companies. For those of us who work to put the oil and arms industries out of business, our strategies need to encompass alternate plans for the workers caught in the crush of these collapses. We need to think hard and act fast on what conversion from the petroleum-driven war economy means, what it means for jobs for Cajun and Vietnamese and Houma peoples living along the Gulf Coast as well as people in your neighborhood and mine.
After the Flames: Hope, Loss, and Lessons for the Future
If you haven't forced yourself to look at the photos: do it. Look at the towers of fire and smoke from when BP decided to light the Gulf of Mexico on fire. Look at the dead birds and rays smothered in oil. Can you find images of the Kemp's Ridley sea turtles, some of the rarest in the world, being burned alive? Look at whatever images you can find of the dying bayous.
And remember what we're not seeing in the photos. Everything under the water, the unprecedented and unpredictable second disaster of the dispersant, Corexit poisoning the offshore workers and anyone breathing the Gulf air, and sinking new toxics into deep water. Photos aren't showing people with no income who can't make their loan payments on houses rebuilt after Katrina. You aren't seeing the cleanup workers who were fired for bringing their own safety masks after BP warned them not to.
BP keeps getting busted for doctoring photo, but they don't even have to Photoshop out the rising rates of domestic violence in these households in crisis.
The BP catastrophe is not happening in a historical or geographic vacuum. We remember Shell's mangling of Nigeria, Chevron/Texaco in Ecuador, and Union Carbide in India. Louisiana residents are living (and dying from) the ongoing disaster of the Cancer Alley refineries in the river parishes outside New Orleans. Oil companies refused to reform from previous spills in the Gulf, like the 1970 blowout that burned for months and sent oil as far as the Yucatan Peninsula. None of this is new, or unique. So instead, let's look for the lessons-- what can be learned about justice and healing from these other struggles? Indigenous leaders from Ecuador recently visited the Gulf Coast to connect with Houma Nation leaders there. 25 years after Union Carbide's massacre in Bhopal, people are continuing to expand the movement for accountability and reparations. These are not short-term struggles.
When it was time to leave this week, I just couldn't make myself say goodbye to southern Louisiana. I may be just being stubborn, but the people living there are stubborner. Why should I be giving up when they aren't? And to paraphrase Tracie Washington from New Orleans' Louisiana Justice Institute, "Stop calling me resilient when that means you're just going to keep doing things to me."
Thanks to everyone who talked BP with me in Louisiana these past weeks, and especially to Jennifer Whitney, Catherine Jones, Lydia Pelot-Hobbs, and Monique Harden for giving me so much to think about.
A starter list to learn more about and support Gulf Coast leadership:
Advocates for Environmental Human Rights: http://www.ehumanrights.org/
Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans: http://www.vayla-no.org/
Louisiana Justice Institute: http://louisianajusticeinstitute.blogspot.com/
New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice: http://www.nowcrj.org/
Louisiana Environmental Action Network: http://www.leanweb.org/