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BP Memories that don’t fade

Rosina Philippe by oiled marsh, photographed by David Helvarg
Rosina Philippe by oiled marsh, photographed by David Helvarg

April 20 marks the 5th anniversary of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. A federal judge has ruled that BP demonstrated “gross negligence” leading to the blowout and spill. Still BP (and former Pentagon) spokesman Geoff Morrell insists that the Gulf is now, “better than ever,” and the company is fighting claims for damages. The following is excerpted from my newly released book, ‘Saved by the Sea – Hope, Heartbreak and Wonder in the Blue World.’
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I’m flying in a small Cessna over the site of the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Below us roughly one hundred dolphins and a humpback whale are trapped and dying in the oil that’s spread from horizon to horizon. Nearby, half a dozen columns of dark smoke rise 2,000 feet into the air from where BP contract crews are trying to burn off some of the surface oil, while roaring flames shoot from one of the diversionary wells where eleven workers aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig were killed and dozens of ships are now positioned in the hazy smog…
I visit miles of fouled beaches from Louisiana to Florida; a bird-scrubbing facility, where hundreds of oiled pelicans are being cleaned; and the Atakapa Ishak Indian community of Grand Bayou near Burus Louisiana, a small town that was kindling and rubble the last time I was there, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Buras wasn’t much before Katrina, but it’s much less now, with fewer residents, a hollowed-out strip mall where the town fire truck is parked inside the shell of a discount store, and no signs of recovery five years on unless you count the home-built flower boxes someone’s attached to a rusting FEMA trailer. Only the heat and humidity remain unchanged.
The gravel road into Grand Bayou ends at a boat dock. The village is built along canals that wind out to Barataria Bay. There are no roads here, only boats to get around on. Twenty-three families used to live here before Hurricane Katrina swept through. There are nine left, though five more families are planning to return once new stilt homes are completed with help from the Mennonite Disaster Service. We load nine people into a camouflage-painted flatboat, including Rosina Philippe, who’s become an unofficial spokeswoman for the Ishak, and her brother Maurice, the boat handler. Maurice is a big, dark-skinned oysterman with a weather-beaten face, a salt-and-pepper mustache, and a camo cap with sunglasses resting on the brim. There is also cousin Karen and her grandson Brock, who’s three.
“His twin sister’s with her mom and dad today, but we can’t keep Brock away from the water,” Karen explains. “He’s going to be a future Bayou man.”
We take off heading out the channel into the open bay. “We have seen changes in the environment here over time. We’ve lived here for time without number. We do not have a time in our memory of being anywhere else,” Rosina tells me. She’s a proud, broad-faced woman, though tired-seeming now, with a long black braid that she keeps in front of her where she can keep an eye on it.
“We’re still subsistence people in the twenty-first century,” she explains. “Everything we need—the animals, vegetables, medicinal plants, and herbs—we have here. But the situation with the oil and dispersants is having unknown effects on our waters.”
We’ve crossed into open water now, and after twenty minutes Maurice slows the boat, steering us toward the edge of the marsh, where the bottom of the saw grass is stained black up to the high-tide mark, about two feet above the waterline.
“We still fish, shrimp, oyster, and trap—our men do this and we teach the little ones,” Rosina says, gesturing at Brock, who’s playing with the straps on his small blue life vest. “But if we can’t teach that to him in the next ten to twenty years—”
“It’ll kill our culture,” his grandmother interrupts.
“This is Bay Batiste, and that’s Bay Jimmy,” Maurice points to what looks like an island where a government wildlife boat is cruising, its aluminum cabin topped by several carrier cages for oiled birds. This stretch of the lower Mississippi wetlands has been shredded by years of oil-company canal building, making it easier for the newly released oil to get in.
“When they built the canals, they became little bays, and when they build parallel canals, soon all the marsh in between becomes open water,” Rosina explains.
“We’re passing oyster reef. We have some seventy acres here, and I see nothing but lots of oil in grass. I see lots of death here— all the oysters gonna die!” Maurice worries.
I ask him how much he’d normally collect. “Good day, we caught one hundred sacks by lunch. That would be six hours.” Maurice was the first one to report the oil that surged into Barataria Bay in early June, and it has since become the epicenter of what’s known as the Battle of Barataria, the ongoing struggle to clean and protect parts of these famously productive swamp waters west of Port Sulphur and the Mississippi River.
We push up against the blackened grasses so a C-SPAN crew riding with us can interview Rosina, but the wind is rising and dark clouds are closing in. Tarred oil boom is floating on the edge of the marsh with orange drops of oil dispersed inside and outside the snaky one-hundred-foot-long barricade.
“Oil came into this bay forty-six days after the disaster, and they didn’t block it!” Rosina says bitterly. Later the Coast Guard captain in charge at the BP facility being used as the state incident command center (ICC) outside Houma will tell me the oil was so dispersed in so many separate slicks that it “infiltrated into the bay under the booms,” though I have a hard time believing that.
As the waves begin lapping against our hull and the sky turns black with fat drops of rain starting to fall, we cut the interview short and run for shore. A couple of dolphins surface nearby, maybe curious to see what we’re up to. Maurice jigs and jags the boat through grassy dogleg channels of a natural canal that hasn’t been oiled yet, the black clouds falling off behind us, and with the freshening wind and thump of the boat, it feels good to be on the water again, even if I’m here to report on yet another apocalyptic scene of unnecessary waste and destruction.
The Atakapa Ishak were scattered after Katrina so that they’re now living in Texas and Tennessee as well as southern Louisiana. They were starting to come back to live together again where they have lived forever. But given their region’s ongoing disasters, there future, along with that of Cajuns and other coastal peoples of the Gulf looks increasingly grim.
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“We’re still in recovery mode,” Rosina told a local Louisiana TV station last month. “People are trying to come back, but the resources are limited.” There are now thirteen families living in Grand Bayou.
The oil and gas industry is also looking to expand its offshore operations in the Gulf and expand along the Atlantic coast and in the Arctic Ocean.