The New Gulf Coast

by Mike Gaworecki

June 8, 2010

This post is by Molly Dorozenski, a Greenpeace USA media officer who is on the ground in Louisiana bearing witness to the impacts of the BP Deepwater Disaster and oil spill.

Last Friday, I found myself in Pensacola, Florida getting ready to greet the oil as it hit Florida’s white sand beaches. But just as I arrived, we started hearing reports that the oil had arrived in unprecedented amounts in Barataria Bay, and the barrier islands that served as breeding grounds for the area’s birds.

The very first photographs of oil-covered pelicans had started to hit the newspapers. As BP’s latest attempt to stem the oil flow seemed to be succeeeding, we were seeing the beginning of the worst effects of the oil spill we had seen yet — plainly suffering wildlife that cannot be protected or rescued fast enough.

River Shay walks his dog Smash in the front yard of his Grand Isle, Louisiana house planted with crosses with the names some of the marine life, seafood dishes and recreational activiites that are being lost due oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico. © Jose-Luis Magana/Greenpeace
View more images of the oil spill on Flickr

Grand Isle is a vacation and weekend fishing spot for Louisianans, a long pretty stretch of sand scattered with small motels and cottages with cheerful names and marinas at either end. What would be a place of leisure has been totally transformed — a newly-erected symbolic graveyard for everything this community has lost, courtesy (they say) of BP and the federal government: “Sandcastles,” “Seafood Gumbo,” “Sea Turtles” “Redfish” — dozens of white crosses with different labels. Down at the marina, there are folks who have been coming to Grand Isle for years — they can no longer fish or swim, but they’re coming here anyway. They’re dumbstruck. The beaches of Grand Isle are patroled by BP and closed to the public — you can see the workers from a walkway at Grand Isle State Park where locals and media have lined up to watch oil shoveled endlessly into bags.

A little ways off by boat — not more than a 10-minute boat ride — you can visit Queen Bess Island, home to the endangered Brown Pelican, a bird that has recovered from past population problems related to pesticides. When we visited, the island was surrounded by booms and boats couldn’t get very close, but you could count probably 10-15 pelicans that were partly or fully covered in oil. Many of them would not survive the night. Since we’re not trained to rescue them ourselves, we called in what we had seen to wildlife rescue — we know that teams are going back and forth to the islands, but it’s frustrating to see no rescue teams there. You just feel helpless.

At Grand Terre, a bigger nearby island, the beach was covered in oil.  It was on the sand, and there were thick pools of it along the edge in the water. Dirty sorbent booms had washed up on the shores, totally saturated in oil. Again, we saw no BP workers — where are the 20,000 workers that President Obama says are out here cleaning up this mess? And aren’t we all tired of cleaning up after dirty energy? When will we have an energy policy that protects the things we love from catastrophes like this? This has to be the moment of change, unless we want to see this and feel like this again and again.

The locals here know that it’s going to be a long time, decades, before Grand Isle is the place that they remember. This is the new Gulf Coast. You can’t clean it up much at all, and the little that could be done isn’t being done fast enough. As the oil spreads through the Gulf tainting the waters, the islands, and the wildlife, BP and the President stand up at press conferences and tell us they’re doing all they can. But we’ve seen the truth and it’s not pretty — it’s a failed energy policy, a failed response, and a failure of humanity.

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