[Ed. note: Because it deserves more attention, we're republishing this first in a series of on-the-scene reports from along State Highway 23 to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana.]
From the moment I heard about the Deep Horizon oil spill, I knew it would turn into a disaster of unfathomable proportions. I also knew I wanted to help, so I got online and started looking for volunteer opportunities. The Audubon Oil Spill Response Team and OilSpillVolunteers.com looked promising, so I filled out applications and then learned that, aside from one hundred volunteers needed for cleanup on a beach in lower Jefferson Parish, the organizations didn’t want more help. So I began looking for an alternative.
Facebook holds the answers to so many of life’s other questions, so I began there. Almost as soon as I had asked, I received a message suggesting that I contact Dotty Oliver, The Mistress of the Misunderstood. I friended Dotty and shot her a message. After a few back and forths, I knew I would soon be on my way to NOLA – though I had no idea what I would be doing, where I would be staying, or how I could help anybody. Days passed. The slick spread. And I became more and more anxious. It became harder and harder for me to get any sleep. Finally, last Sunday, the big day came, and I began what has become a most interesting voyage.
Still not having a clue how I could help, I arrived in NOLA late Sunday night – a little too late for the Gulf Aid benefit concert but early enough to have an awesome local dinner and a few beers before seeing Rebirth Brass Band (which had performed at Gulf Aid earlier that night) play on a crowded street corner. Over dinner, Dotty and I talked about what she had learned and what I would be doing, though the details were, and perhaps still are, foggy at best.
I love the outdoors and hands-on labor, so when I started looking into volunteering, I wanted to meet the oil head on and beat it back with my bare hands. Instead, I had to become an investigative reporter. I don’t know what will happen from one day to the next, and I suspect that a lot of folks down here don’t either. We’re all just trying to be ready for anything.
I traveled down Highway 23 South out of New Orleans, which gets you about as close to the oil as you can get on a paved road. Near the end, we reached Venice Marina at the Port of Venice – the self-proclaimed Fishing Capital of the World (though it may not be much longer) – where an open-air press conference had just ending. We stuck around for a few minutes taking pictures and trying to eavesdrop our way onto a lead. My cohort (some of you may know him from post on FDL as Eureka Springs) said hello to Dr. Riki Ott to secure a few moments of her time. Dr. Ott had taken up a position of apparent authority and had little time for us, so we left the Venice Marina and headed back north on 23.
On the way we stopped at Historic Fort Jackson were, during the civil war, the battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip occurred in 1862. Fort Jackson is where they have set up an animal response-and-recovery center. We thought we would get to take a few photos and ask a few questions. Instead, we were abruptly escorted away by a security guard in a BP cap.
The center itself seemed dead and no animals seemed to be being cleaned or treated, though there are undoubtedly hundreds, if not thousands, of birds, turtles, and the like that have already been affected – not to mention the undersea life that is harder to monitor. (We saw photos this morning of bait fish washing ashore in huge numbers.)
We decided just to look around Fort Jackson itself. To our surprise, we found that the EPA had established a monitoring station inside the fort, and off limits to the public. We saw an EPA agent checking the water and air quality.
We headed back toward NOLA until we ran across some sort of national guard center where military types were filling huge sandbags which will supposedly divert oil into some canal – just sounds like another problem.
Finally we arrived in Arabi, LA, where the president of The United Commercial Fishermen’s Association, George Barisich, has let us stay in a house he is remodeling after Katrina damaged it. Later that night, a fisherman’s wife came by. First off, she told us, tons of people have been looking to buy shrimp – the only problem is that, instead of shrimping, her husband has no choice but to work for BP on the “cleanup” because there is a moratorium on fishing in the area. So, the fisherman’s wife has had to turn down orders for over ten thousand pounds of shrimp. On top of that, BP has made the fishermen feel like they are the ones who have done something wrong and have gone so far as to blame over one hundred turtle deaths on the fishermen. The “compensation” or “pay” that BP has been giving – or at least saying they would give – the fishermen isn’t that great either. This particular fisherman is getting paid eight hundred dollars a day for his boat and fifty dollars an hour for labor, which sounds ok to me, but is much less than what these fishermen are used to making. And from what the fisherman’s wife said, it isn’t enough to pay the bills – that is, if BP ever cuts them a check at all. The bills are pilling up but BP just says “wait until Wednesday.” Some of the fishermen are only making eighteen dollars an hour, compared to the five to eight hundred dollars they normally make fishing, and even though those involved in the Exxon Valdez cleanup are suffering from lung and kidney problems caused by chemical poisoning. The fishermen working for BP on this cleanup have been told not to wear respirators (the only thing that would keep them safe). But, if the fishermen don’t work in these dangerous conditions, they don’t work at all. BP is even starting to drug test boat captains, something the fishermen are none to happy about. The fishermen say, just because we go out there and smoke a little herb shouldn’t mean we can’t feed our families.
I will be spending the rest of my time here researching, interviewing, photographing and reporting on what I find. I am lucky enough to be assisting fisherman and film maker Gary Burris (some of you may already know him from Dotty’s posts) on his quest to save the oceans and the world.
Life can be hard down here even when things are going well. Right now the situation is far from good, and it looks as though things will get a lot worse before they get better. This catastrophe could very possibly mean the end of an entire way of life and it threatens the very heart of Cajun culture. I hope everyone will keep the fishermen of this area in there hearts and minds. We all need to make sure that this “Battle of New Orleans” is not lost.