jason berry author

The Gulf Oil Spill: Blame, Fear, and the Sound of Hope

July 16, 2010

NEW ORLEANS -- When BP's platform exploded in the Gulf, killing 11 men, New Orleans had slowly, achingly, begun to get past Hurricane Katrina. Nearly five years on, many neighborhoods in the vast urban expanse that went underwater -- an area eight times larger than Manhattan -- had rejoined the B-flat hum of the city. Federal funds had finally hit the streets with miles of thoroughfares gouged by water getting repaved. A quarter of the population has not returned, most of them poor folk lacking the means to do so. But the disastrous inefficiency of Mayor Ray Nagin was about to end. Mitch Landrieu, charismatic and hip-smart, left a safe job as lieutenant governor to win the mayor's race in a landslide first primary.
More miraculous yet, the hard-luck Saints won the Super Bowl, putting the image of a victim city to rest. HBO began airing "Tremé," a marvelous series on the interwoven lives of musicians, chefs, cops, deejays, bar owners, professors, and carpenters rebuilding homes and lives in the months after Katrina. The show mirrored the larger resurgence echoed in a Mardi Gras Indians' song line: "We won't bow down."
On Thursday, BP halted the oil flow for an observation period, as long as 48 hours, to determine if the well structure is strong enough to sustain the month-long process of cement-sealing to shut it completely.
And so we wait, if not on baited breath, at least with hope that the poisoning has stopped, leaving only huge poisons to remediate.
The "largest environmental hazard in American history" also revealed a political debacle whose divisions will be a long time in healing.

Finger-pointing and Inaction

As the muck spread beyond our fragile coastal wetlands, washing onto beaches from Gulfport to Pensacola, a regional tourist economy hung in the balance. The drumbeat rose for BP to expand the compensation program to help, for example, Gulfport civic leaders boost their media advertising from $600,000 to $2.5 million to draw people back. WWL radio in New Orleans mounted a virtual drumbeat against the Obama administration for its moratorium on deep-water drilling. The sense of desperation was palpable, with so many people working in seafood and oil-related jobs thrown into a free fall. But the logic of preventing another disaster turned into a latter-day equivalent of the Communist plot.

Louisiana pols kept mum on steps the state should take to remediate what is left of the wetlands now being poisoned. The legislature had no interest in a tax on oil to start repairing a shoreline so diminished that within seven years the Gulf will be lapping 35 miles from New Orleans. A generation ago it was 90 miles. If ever there was a time to mount that issue, this is it.

Instead, Washington-bashing carried the day.

The federal government never had the hardware to "take over" the crisis -- the robots, underwater cameras, high-paid engineers and billions in technology that BP brought to bear. Obama's sluggish response hurt him politically, but the only real weapons he had were to 1. put pressure on BP to increase compensation money; 2. determine how much in emergency funds to seek from Congress and a debt-swollen federal fisc, and 3. develop a prosecution strategy against BP once the leak is plugged.
Gov. Bobby Jindal and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser railed endlessly against the federal response, insisting that sand berms be installed to forestall the oil slick. But their grandstanding ignored the lack of scientific testing to prove that the berms would work, which they have not. But frightened people like to see politicians shaking the fist at heartless federals.
The Louisiana legislature, consumed with the bloody job of gutting higher education programs to balance the budget, took a long powder from the issues of a traumatized post-BP lowlands. What does that subsurface ocean of oil hold for the web of marine life across the years to come? How far will the leaching migrate? Can it be stopped?
Louisiana's $3 billion seafood industry has taken a huge hit. The last day of oyster-shucking of a 134-year-old oyster distribution business made Page One of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Restaurants, in a city famous for them, are importing shrimp and fish from far beyond restricted Gulf waters. Prices rise, fishing families go under. "A way of life is dying before our eyes" became a media mantra.
But with a state budget whose modest tax revenues from industry are tied to the price of oil, the legislative dons had no plan. Can you imagine New York being passive in a crisis like this? Or the statehouse in Boston?

Area of Uncertainty

The air smelt of oil several times in May; no scientist could quantify or say for sure just what that meant. Did oil fumes blown in from the Gulf cause the lady and her grandson, both asthmatics, to leave another child's outdoor birthday party on account of sudden hacking coughs?
Every morning the Times-Picayune has been publishing a map that pinpoints where oil tar hit marshlands or beach front, with a larger, dark gray area on the geographic expansion as the spill moves west to east. The map denotes an Area of Uncertainty; it is a metaphor of the collective mind. We live in an area of uncertainty. If, God forbid, a hurricane of Katrina's force should hit the Gulf and surge into New Orleans -- or Gulfport, or Mobile, or Destin, or Panama City -- the impact of petroleum flooding will be beyond category. Imagine the clean up job, and the years it will take for toxicity to register in rates of people dying at early ages.
As the oil plume spread into Florida waters we had nothing close to the data necessary on toxicity, the impact on fishing beds and underwater regions fraught with florabunda. How does science measure that level of the web of life when instruments cannot penetrate the dark?

Subdued Panic

From the outlying districts -- as happens every evening in our town -- a gentle breeze wafted a murmur of voices, smells of roasting meat, a gay, perfumed tide of freedom sounding on its way, as the streets filled up with noisy young people released from shops and offices. Nightfall, with its deep, remote baying of unseen ships, the rumor rising from the sea...seemed today charged with menace.

In those lines from The Plague, Camus describes the port of Oran, in 1940s French Algeria, at the early signs of bubonic plague, rats dying in the street, his metaphor for the Nazi occupation. I do not suggest we lump BP into an analogy so harsh; but the sensation of daily life imperiled by a sinister unknown, as pervades Camus' novel, has settled across Gulf Coast cities and villages as we watch a federal government that lacks the tools to counter an ecological hazard of this scope, and the crippled response of governors, senators and congressman in the spill zone, who are loathe to make the oil industry more accountable. The "spill" resembles a big budget disaster or sci fi thriller, although we have no happy ending for this script, not even a solution.
The shadow story of the oil spill is a kind of subdued panic, fear over what we cannot control, fear at helpless passivity.

Imperfect Solution

Louisiana elected officials rail against the Obama administration for the moratorium on deep drilling until new safety standards are put in place to gauge against another blow-out. That precaution makes sense in light of BP's horrendous safety record. Yet, in these latitudes, the losses have taken such a toll that people hold a greater fear of more lost jobs should the rigs pull out to Brazil or West Africa, where safeguards are slack. What is the imperfect solution? To gamble that the untested wells aren't flawed like BP's, and shore up a battered economy, or to err on caution's side against another crippling mistake by industry?

The Sound of Hope

How strangely ironic that New Orleans -- an economic backwater where America's native art form blossomed a century ago -- should end up as dateline for two disaster epics, Katrina and BP, that stand as signposts of a troubling new era.

America's myth of endless space is giving way to the Age of Debt. The limits imposed by profligate spending and a permanent war economy overhang a dwindling faith in technology to answer the riddle of how civilization advances for the common good.
The country that put men on the moon failed to rescue a flooded city and it could not plug a broken oil well. The legendary stoicism Camus imbued in his seaside town is a worthy model to emulate at such a turning point. Yet stoicism is alien to a state with a history of political demagogues, as it is against type in the cradle of jazz.

At night, noisy young people jostle along Frenchmen Street where the fifth generation of brass bands since jazz began raise "Didn't He Ramble" against the unseen menace. A surge of hope rises with those horns. In the countless personal diasporas after Katrina, several thousand musicians managed to scrape their way back home, determined to reclaim a spiritual terrain. In a sense, the rest of us followed, drawn to a life force carried by the music, embodied by the city. Here we stand, feet on soggy soil, living against the odds, waiting, hoping, wondering, with ears pitched to a faint, distant melody of redemption.

> read more articles by Jason Berry at politics daily.com