Driving onto Grand Isle, La., an eerily familiar sensation crawls up the arms and into the hairs on the back of the neck. Similar to the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, elements of the ordinary collide with the extraordinary, creating a vivid sense of the surreal. On any typical Sunday in May, Grand Isle consists of charming rows of beach houses raised on pilings with names like Camp Chi Chi, Camp No Problem, and Mama’s Happy. The roads buzz with vacationers and sports enthusiasts who flock to this barrier island for the beaches, boating and fishing.
But this is no typical Sunday, and the roads are nearly deserted. Like spotting birds in the marsh, the signs of a disaster zone begin to emerge. Photographers perch upon sand dunes while the beaches themselves are nearly abandoned. Enormous military transport vehicles sit parked in the driveways of seaside cottages. Worse, the telltale indicator of something terribly amiss hangs in the air. Literally. It’s the smell of petroleum wafting in off the Gulf of Mexico, where the BP oil spill continues to spew thousands of barrels of oil into the waters off the Louisiana coast each day. Already, tar balls the size of pie plates have begun arriving on the coast here, and the sleepy, abandoned appearance of the island belies what’s actually happening: people are scrambling.
Welcome to the “area of uncertainty.”
Something akin to the “cone of uncertainty” that accompanies any hurricane about to make landfall, the “area of uncertainty” is that ever-changing, constantly updated diagram of the coastline that shows which areas are threatened by the impending disaster, including all manner of approximate timelines and severities. For anyone living along the Gulf Coast, the area of uncertainty is a constant presence, looming on the pages of every newspaper, television screen, and bookmarked website. And like a fishing net cast across the water, the area has ensnared this unique stretch of Louisiana coastline.
Up the road from Grand Isle, police officers block the road to the Port Fourchon beach. Formerly known only to oilfield workers and a handful of surfing fanatics, the obscure, 19-km stretch of sand has transformed into a hotbed of government and media attention as it becomes the latest strike zone for the BP oil disaster. Most of the crude that has washed ashore so far has landed on uninhabited islands, but the black tide continues to creep toward the mainland, and this landfall of oil at Port Fourchon brings the disaster within easy striking distance of vulnerable ecosystems and local communities. At the Port Authority building, Brennan Matherne, with the Lafourche Parish government, explains what’s happening just out of sight.
“We’re trying to protect the marshes,” he says. “The National Guard is out there with heavy equipment, filling in the breaches between the Gulf and the marsh.”
Members from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality quickly tackled the oil cleanup on the beach. Now, using rock and sand, the National Guardsmen are trying to create a barrier that would keep any oil from washing over the thin spit of beach or through any of the natural inlets, contaminating the wetlands. “BP tells us that it’s easier to clean oil off of sand than it is to clean it out of marshland, so that’s our goal,” Matherne says.
He goes on to explain how the chemical dispersants that BP is spraying into the plume of oil are what causes it to come ashore as “tar balls” or in globs as opposed to washing up in liquid form. The more gelatinous form of crude is, evidently, easier to clean up.
Gazing out from the tall porch of the Port Authority across the Gulf waters, it’s easy to see how this region has developed a fascinating relationship between land, water and oil. This is a sponge-like part of the world where land gives way to marsh, which in turn gives way to water. Unfortunately, disappearing wetlands and coastline have placed the region in more danger from both storms and manmade disasters. And these days, danger comes with a ticking clock.
Bizarrely, the harbours here appear as empty as the roadways. Every operating fishing boat that can assemble a crew is actually out working as fast as they can, for as long as they can. There likely is little time left. Just a few weeks ago, Grand Isle celebrated its annual Blessing of the Fleet, and all indications pointed toward a hugely successful fishing and shrimping season. Now, with commercial fishing areas dropping like dominoes to the effects of the oil spill, fishermen are hustling to salvage what little they can in hopes of staving off the complete destruction of their livelihoods. In many parts of the state, fishing has already ground to a halt. It seems strange, in the wake of this disaster, to look out from Grand Isle and see fishing boats working right beside offshore oil platforms, but this is by no means an uncommon sight on any ordinary day. By all accounts, the dead fish that litter the beaches right now are the result of this mad-dash fishing rather than the effects of the oil spill. At least so far. In the race to haul in the largest catch possible, speed trumps accuracy, and wounded fish will often fall from nets or be tossed overboard in favour of more valuable varieties.
Toward evening, a row of parked cars appears at Artie’s Bar. Happy hour must go on, even in disaster zones. Artie’s is a sprawling place, with a stage inside for live music and a large deck out back overlooking the Gulf waters. Today, the deck is closed and the stage is dark, but a small group of islanders and soldiers have gathered at the front bar. The flirtier of two bartenders snatches the hat off a soldier and wears it sideways over her red hair as she fetches cold beers from the cooler. A white-haired man called Pops waits for a to-go order of french fries. Pops has lived and worked on the island for almost three decades now, surviving whatever hurricanes or economic hardships battered the coastline. “But this thing,” he says, referring to the oil disaster, “this isn’t like anything we’ve ever seen before.”
Pops works at Pirate’s Cove Marina and has just come from a meeting where officials discussed what to do about the upcoming recreational fishing season. Beyond the lucrative commercial industry, Grand Isle’s famous fishing rodeos and festivals draw tens of thousands of visitors to the island every year. Now, Pops and everyone who depends on that recreational economy is watching their entire season vanish in front of their eyes. “The thing that gets me is the dishonesty,” Pops says, referring to BP’s underestimates of how much oil is spilling into the Gulf. The corporation first claimed that 1,000 barrels a day were gushing out, but were forced to adjust that number to 5,000 barrels a day. Now some scientists think that number is far higher, but neither BP nor the federal government have allowed specialists near enough to the plume to measure the flow rate, and Pops considers that a grievous act of intentional misrepresentation.
Pops spends his free time volunteering with disaster preparations at Elmer’s Island, a wildlife refuge less than half a mile southwest of Grand Isle, where he helps lay out boom and build seawall. “We might win this fight, and we might lose,” he says, “but we don’t stand a chance if no one will tell us what we’re up against.”
In addition to the vague estimates, there has been a halting and disjointed response on the part of the federal government. The most prominent example is the lack of boom. Boom is a floating, tube-like tentacle that prevents oil (or other debris) from passing. Hard boom, absorbent boom and hair boom each have their specific purposes and are used in concert to help defend against oil slicks. Even as the oil begins to wash ashore, recent estimates show that Louisiana only has one mile of boom for every 13 miles of coastline, while neighbouring states such as Alabama and Mississippi have much more complete coverage.
Indeed, all along this stretch of coast, the only visible traces of boom are the brightly coloured tentacles that stretch in arcs around the inlets to the harbours. It seems impossible that these devices that look like children’s pool toys are supposed to defend this island, much less this entire coastline, from the onslaught that is coming. This place seems so small and fragile compared to the enormity of the oil spill, which continues to grow in great curling plumes from the ocean floor while BP tries to stick a cork back in the genie’s bottle.
This disaster is a stark reminder of the dangers of the oil industry, and the delicate—and yes, expensive—balancing act that must be maintained in order for that industry to coexist with both communities and environments. Looking around, it’s clear that the costs of inaction are far greater than the costs of regulated safety measures. Even as the marsh begins to glow gold and pink in the light of sunset, the breeze carries the scent of the ever-growing threat just miles away. Will the marsh be here next year? The estuaries teeming with life? Perhaps. Perhaps the rest of the boom will arrive in time, and the fortifications will hold. Perhaps the genie won’t strike with all his might. Standing here in such a beautiful light, the alternative is too horrible to think about.