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Healing Journey: A Costly Coastal Legacy for the Gulf of Mexico

National Geographic Education Fellow Jon Waterhouse writes from Louisiana’s Gulf Coast that, for some residents who rely on marine life for a living, reports that we’re past the worst of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s consequences don’t ring true.

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By Jon Waterhouse

All is not right with the world–not in Louisiana, at least. As the BP disaster in the Gulf has all but disappeared from the news, we discover that the stories of the twin environmental catastrophes here–first Katrina, then the oil spill–are far from finished. We are here to speak with Gulf residents about the personal impact of BP and its partners’ mind-boggling errors, and in so doing we’re learning that the consequences are on-going. This story still needs to be told.

Our arrival in New Orleans began pleasantly. A delightful young lady named Ashley met me and my wife Mary at the rental car counter. Her friendly demeanor and outgoing personality implied that she came from a healthy background and enjoyed a good life. This assessment prompted us to bulldoze right on in with a big question for her: “So, how did Hurricane Katrina affect you?”

Her answer was unexpected. “My family lived in an area of Belle Chasse that is now completely gone.” Surprised, we listened intently as she discussed the horror of this storm and how it affected her life and the lives of her family, her neighbors, and her friends. She told us that her grandparents survived the hurricane, but the aftermath of the disaster proved too much for her grandfather, and within two months, he had passed away. “Many of our friends never came back. We were all just normal families before Katrina.”

Ashley’s upbeat demeanor gave no hint of the self-pity, resentment, or emotional trauma that we might expect from someone who had endured the nightmare that we casually refer to as “Katrina.” As Ashley continued to tell us of her experience, she referenced her grandmother frequently, and quoted her as she described the spirit of her family. “It happened, we’re still here, we’re strong, and we’re movin’ on.”

Mary and I found Ashley’s resilient outlook on life inspiring, and we were pretty amped after the conversation. We wondered if this was indicative of the spirit of the people of Louisiana, and if the responses we would receive about the oil disaster would be as optimistic. Time would tell. We had not even left the airport.

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Our good friend and walking/paddling companion, John Francis (aka the “Planetwalker”), joined us in New Orleans for his first visit to the Gulf area, and had arranged for the three of us to meet LaTosha Brown. John met LaTosha when she spoke at the TEDxOilSpill event in Washington, D.C. last June, where experts just returning from the Gulf spill area reported their findings.

LaTosha directs the Gulf Coast Fund, a non-profit created after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the region. At breakfast, she described for us the current state of the Gulf. We learned that contrary to what we might conclude from recent news reports–or lack thereof–life for Gulf coast residents is not even close to “normal,” and it seems that it may never be.

LaTosha also shared some data with which we were unfamiliar:

*More than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells lie beneath the Gulf of Mexico.

*More than 1,200 oil rigs in the Gulf currently sit idle.

*Prior to this disaster, oil leases and other payments from the oil in the Gulf represented the second largest deposits into the National Treasury after those coming from taxpayers via the Internal Revenue Service.

Armed with this information and the names of a few Gulf residents from LaTosha, we set out for Grand Isle, Louisiana–a sort of ground zero for the Deepwater Horizon disaster–to witness what progress was being made in the giant clean-up effort.

As we approached Grand Isle, we called Karen Hopkins, the first person on LaTosha’s list. Karen is clearly anxious for our arrival. When we finally sat down with her, Karen announced unprompted that she was “not an environmentalist.” Rather, she pronounced herself a “conservative conservationist. I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined I’d sit down with radical, tree-hugging liberals, but we are now working side by side together like family. Hard-core Republicans, native Americans, ethnic Vietnamese–you name it, we are all Gulf residents and we are fighting for our lives here. One of my new best friends is a liberal and I just love her. We have set aside our politics because we have a common concern for what has happened. Our only focus when it comes to our differences is ignoring them. We know that in this oil spill there, is no room for politics because politics divide.”

For Karen, sadness and despair over a lost way of life for many in the Gulf had clearly turned to a smoldering-hot anger. She and her husband, a commercial fisherman, no longer cry, she told us. “We just sob. Day after day we look at what happened, look at the oil in these waters and sob. But now we’re pissed. This is not right and if I die trying, I’m going to be damn sure BP makes it right.”

She states that as soon as the announcement came that the leaking well was successfully capped, the national media who had been “packed in like sardines on Grand Isle, government officials, and all other concerned parties” were gone. BP was gone, too.

“But the oil is still here. It’s right over there.”

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Karen explains that BP took many of the fishermen whose livelihood went away with the oil and put them to work cleaning up. The fisherman had more at stake than BP did, and their performance exceeded BP’s expectations. Karen says this wasn’t a good thing. “That meant they (BP) had to do something with all that oil that was getting cleaned up.” So, she tells us, the fishermen were told to go home, and that was that.

Since the sudden departure of the clean-up effort and the journalists reporting and filming it, Karen told us she had been relentless in her research regarding the current state of the spill zone. She provided us with document after document pertaining to water quality and testing methods, and said her findings differed substantially from those of the various experts who were supplying results for BP to give residents and fishermen. She continued to question testing methods and BP’s proclamations that Gulf shrimp and fish were now safe to eat. “I will never eat Gulf shrimp again. Never,” she said.

As we continued our talk with Karen, her employer, Dean Blanchard, appeared. Dean was more than happy to share his thoughts on what had happened in the Gulf. In response to Karen’s remark about never eating shrimp again, Dean added, “I’ve been doing this for 51 years. I was born into a fishing family and you can bet that we know when fish is good and when it’s bad. The seagulls and other birds will always eat anything we toss out, good or bad, always. But they won’t touch these shrimp. The birds won’t touch ‘em. Hell, the flies won’t even lay their eggs on ‘em. Now what does that tell you?”

John asked Dean what he wanted from BP and its drilling partners to make this right. Dean simply stated, “The truth.”

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Jon Waterhouse is director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, a National Geographic Education Fellow, and an avid paddler.

The views expressed in this article are those of our guest blogger Jon Waterhouse and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Mary Marshall and John Francis contributed to this report.

Photos by Jon Waterhouse

Gulf oil spill coverage: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/gulf-oil-spill-news/