Diary of a Disaster: 6 Months in the Gulf

What it’s like to respond to an environmental and democratic crisis—and where we go from here.

America awoke the morning of April 21 to learn that BP's well, the Deepwater Horizon, had blown out in the Gulf of Mexico
and was on fire. Eleven men were dead. BP began dumping dispersants
(toxic chemicals that sink oil) into the Gulf and lies into the media.

I had left Alaska on February 10 for another round of national talks
on the democracy crisis and how we can take back our government... from the corporations.
My phone went berserk with media requests. Lisa Marie, my assistant and
friend, asked when I was going down to the Gulf. "I'm not," I said. She
knew better.

For both of us, it was deja vu. During the Exxon Valdez oil spill 21
years earlier in Alaska, Lisa Marie had worked with traumatized children
and families. She worked for several years as a board member and
volunteer for the Cordova Family Resource Center. With my doctorate in
marine pollution, I became a spokesperson for the commercial fishing
industry, testifying in the state legislature and Congress for stronger
spill prevention measures and working to ban dispersants, and then
starting the Copper River Watershed Project
to help the community recover from long-term socioeconomic impacts.
Lisa Marie knew I needed time to process my own memories that surged
afresh with BP's blowout, the inept government-industry response, and
the lies.

It took me a week to come out of my foxhole. I thought about all the
mistakes our community had made after the Exxon-Valdez spill, of all
that we'd learned during our decades of fighting. All of the communities
in the Gulf will make the same mistakes, I thought glumly... unless
someone warns them. Suddenly I realized that someone was me.

On May 3, Lisa Marie and I flew to New Orleans. She had a return
ticket; I did not. Before the flight, a black limousine took me to a
studio in Denver for an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!;
a black limousine picked us up in New Orleans for an interview with
Anderson Cooper on AC 360. The pace didn't slow down for five months.

From May through early October, I drove back and forth across the
Gulf, giving community talks and workshops that evolved with the needs:

May

Shared Exxon Valdez stories and encouraged people to
come up with a Plan B-how they could help themselves instead of waiting
for BP or the federal government to make them whole as Exxon had
promised, but failed, to do in Alaska.

In the town of Jean Lafitte, one Cajun fisherman stopped me
mid-talk and begged, "Miss Riki, c-a-a-a-a-lm down!" A week later, my
southern hosts had figured out how to "handle" me: "Miss Riki, she's
high-strung. You gotta sit 'er down and feed 'er!" That worked.

June

Ordinary folks across the Gulf are turning to covert operations,
grabbing cameras to document and report oil sightings and dispersant use
in coastal seas.

Encouraged people to take air and water quality samples to document
the damage from the spill and the threat to human health (the federal
agencies' sampling programs found nothing to support the outbreak of
respiratory illnesses and skin "rashes" that residents were
experiencing). We amassed documentation of "disappeared" evidence.

A security guard in Florida hid behind bushes to take photos of
BP-contracted Waste Management employees dumping wildlife carcasses in a
dumpster. She sent the photos from her cell phone. "You can see the
bush in the picture!" says Lisa Marie.

July

Encouraged people to take blood samples to link their illnesses with
the high levels of oil and dispersants they were finding in their air
and water. They tested outdoor swimming pools, rain, bayous, and beach
sand.

August

Following massive use of oil dispersants in heavily populated coastal
areas, dealt with extremely sick (and now dying) people. (The federal
government and BP still deny this occurred, though federal investigators
now have documentation. I believe the spraying was done to keep up
appearances that the oil was "gone"-conveniently in time for mid-term
elections.) Found medical doctors to properly diagnose and treat people
as doctors in the Gulf were diagnosing anything but chemical illnesses.
Encouraged those challenging re-opening of commercial fisheries, as they were still finding lots of evidence of oil and dispersants.

In Bayou La Batre, Alabama, two state officials tried to convince
an audience of fishermen that it was okay to fish in coastal waters.
Finally, one exasperated fellow boomed into the microphone, "I am a coon
ass, not a dumb ass!"

September and October

Same as August.

In Louisiana, folks are calling the renamed Mineral Management
Services, an agency captured by the oil industry it is charged with
regulating, "Bummer"-for Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation,
and Enforcement (BOEMRE). It fits. BP and the Coast Guard call the oil
that still washes ashore "algae." It's not. The new joke in Louisiana is
to go to BP stations and ask them to fill up and check the "algae."

In mid-October, I resumed the national tour that was interrupted in
April, finally finding my way home on December 6 after being gone for
290 days! Cordovans showered me with thank-yous, hugs, and "'atta
girls." It felt great.

Now

Now I'm back in the Gulf. There's a lot on my list, from
continuing the work of banning dispersants to finding a university that
will partner with community organizations to conduct a 20-year study on
the health impacts of the spill on Gulf residents.

The story isn't over. Indeed, this story has the potential to unite
Americans in a serious commitment to transition off fossil fuels
,
starting with a permanent ban on deepwater offshore drilling.
It's also an opportunity to confront the dangerous expansion of
corporate power
-for the people I've met here, watching the government
protect BP instead of them has been more instructive than anything I
could tell them.

It's not too late to make sure the outcome of this spill is not, as
it was twenty years ago, a return to "oil business as usual."

This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.