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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Eyewitness to the oil spill

I spent last weekend in Louisiana, researching my next book.  I'm going to be blogging about this for a few days, because it's a subject that's worthy of some time and concentration.

For those who are just joining us here at "It's Like Making Sausage," I am the author of a series of mysteries that feature an archaeologist who works in the southeastern United States.  Because of the nature of archaeology, it only makes sense that I weave the history of my books' settings into the plot.  Because of who I am--a chemical engineer with another degree in physics, who has worked as an environmental consultant--I feel compelled to make sure my fictional world operates properly.  My stories are intended to be entertainments, so the history and science are buried deep beneath the surface.  I do not believe you will ever pick one up and say, "This reads like a textbook!  Yuck!" 

On the contrary, the books get great reviews that use words like "fascinating" and compelling," and they've won awards for being fun to read.  But they also get good reviews from archaeologists and recognitions like an award from the Florida Historical Society.  When I start researching a new story, I'm serious about getting things right, so I go to the source. 

When I wrote my fifth book, Floodgates, I sold it to my editor by pointing out that I was the author to write a book about post-Katrina New Orleans that would be different from any other, because I have family there and a personal history there that includes a summer working offshore in the Gulf.  I also pointed out that, as a licensed engineer, I just might have something worthwhile to say about the levee failures.  She saw my point and let me write the book.  I made much the same argument in favor of my writing a book that features the oil spill catastrophe and, again, she let me write the book.  (I love her for being willing to listen to me.)

I figured that something as unprecedented as millions of gallons of oil stretching over a goodly chunk of real estate was something I needed to see with my own eyes, so I got in my car and drove east until I got to New Orleans. 

As I drove across on I-10 on Friday, June 5, the only certain indication of the disaster was periodic announcements on the Panhandle radio stations that scattered tar balls had washed up on the beaches, but that they were otherwise fine and open for business. As we all know, by the end of the day, those tar balls had proliferated and morphed into the splattering of oil globs that has now affected 150 miles of what were the prettiest beaches I've ever seen.

There was an odd moment when I got an unmistakable whiff of raw oil. I still don't know how this could be. I was miles inland from the gulf. I spent the weekend way down in the Mississippi delta, which is soaked with the stuff just a few miles way from where I was, yet I only detected such a strong scent of oil once. And when I did, there was no oil in sight.

I don't think I imagined the odor. I'm wondering whether the oil is already so weathered when it reaches shore that the volatiles have all entered the air. And maybe stray sea breezes bring it ashore at unexpected times and places. This may explain the numerous reports of petroleum odors near my home in north central Florida, which is far, far from the catastrophe at the moment. Who knows? I'm sure BP doesn't.

Another subtlety I noticed during my drive were two trucks loaded with pipe that was maybe 3 feet in diameter and 20 feet in length. It wasn't a particularly noteworthy sight, except for the police escort, before and after the trucks. There was no wide load sign, and the loads weren't wide. These escorts weren't the traffic technicians that usually accompany wide loads. They were marked cars with blue lights flashing. Coming home, I saw the exact same thing.

I think the pipe was destined for the relief wells, and it was a visual reminder of the enormity of that task. If it takes two trucks and two law enforcement vehicles to transport about 120 feet of pipe, what level of effort will it take merely to get the equipment for those very important wells to the site, much less to drill two such tremendously deep wells? This may be part of the reason we're being told that it will be August before the wells will be finished.  Who knows?  Maybe they're having to make the pipe before they can finish the wells.  It seems to me that someone should have thought of the logistics of this Herculean effort before they ever began drilling at that depth in the first place.

As I neared New Orleans, I drove over swamps and industrial canals and neighborhoods that shouldn't be still trashed from Katrina, but they are.  I whizzed past high-rises and the Superdome, and my car climbed high, high above the Mississippi River.  Then I hung a left and stopped in Algiers to pick up my cousin Cheryl.

Cheryl grew up on the West Bank and still lives there.  She spent several years living in Plaquemines Parish.  She'd told me that she thought she could find a friend with a fishing camp we could borrow for the weekend.  She could think of three off the top of her head, but she hoped she could get us access to her boss's camp because it "was nice."

I was expecting something like this:

(Notice how the gorgeous water and sky makes plumbing-free shacks built with scraps of plywood and random pieces of roofing look fairly beautiful.)

Here's the actual camp:

It has four bedrooms, granite countertops, stainless steel professional appliances, and it is beautifully decorated.  I looked and looked for something in that "fishing camp" that wasn't nicer than anything I owned.  Nope.  I was hoping for a relaxing getaway, but I really didn't expect luxury.  Score!

The owner, Kenny, came down while we were there and took us out in his friend's boat, so we scored again, since my main goal was to get a look at the countryside and the oil spill.  But I'll get to that later.  On that first evening two exhausted single moms sat on the porch of that magnificent "camp", looking out over the water while we soaked in the jacuzzi, drank beer, and digested a big platter of crawfish.  It was truly hard to imagine the devastation that is surely coming to that very spot.

Tomorrow, I'll tell you about a national monument, scads of helicopters, an oiled pelican, and a whole bunch of sandbags.  Pray with me that BP gets the oil well capped soon, so that the hardworking relief workers I saw can know that they are making progress, rather than just continuing with the Sisyphean task of mopping up oil while more spews into the Gulf to take its place.

Until then--
Mary Anna


  1. Thanks for sharing this, I look forward to reading more of what you find. My husband and I visited New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Katrina, and it's a much different experience in person than what one sees on the news. Hearing people's stories really brought the disaster home.

  2. I do think that seeing something with one's own eyes makes it real, but we don't all get a chance to do that. I figure that sharing my observations here will give readers the sense of being there. The most powerful impression I brought home with me was the feeling of being a witness to history.

  3. I met you at Anhinga last year and enjoyed listening to you speak. I don't know all that you will include in your book but I live in South Lafourche where the devastion has already begun to take effect. The President's impressive motorcades down into the recesses of the parish on to Grand Isle, Louisiana have far outshined any solutions he has come up with. Our largest tax paying company has lost millions. This will affect our already declining school system as well as other parish tax supported programs. Business are closing. You do not realize the magnitude until you make the drive up and down Louisiana 1 day after day. Net shops, dry docks, seafood houses, one after one closing down. Trawl boats tied up. Docks empty of weekend boaters and the tourists are non-existent. It's only the beginning of the end for a way of life that has existed for generations. It will take years for our seafood to replenish itself and that is only if and when the cleanup will be completed. The oil industry and the business/recreation industry all exist together and are co-dependent upon each other. One sustains the other. How this will finally play out is anyone's guess.

  4. Thank you for the eyewitness account, Donna. It's such a tragedy from every angle, and people are hurting. And it's such a *big* thing that it's hard to wrap your mind around it. I'll keep writing about it, and I'll put it in my book. I've proposed articles to some major internet outlets like Salon and The Huffington Post. If you don't mind, I may be able to quote you in the article or articles. And if there's anything you'd like to get out there to the world at large, post it here, and I'll do my best.

  5. Mary Anna, Thank you for sharing your experiences with us, for those of us just watching it on the news like me and living in middle America, yes we hurt for the people on the Gulf but we can't see, feel and taste it like you do. You make it more real to me, unfortunately I'm afraid it'll be real for a long, long time.

  6. I think you're right, Debbie. I hope to be able to keep on top of developments there, making periodic visits. As someone with both a technical background and writing experience, I feel some responsibility to use those things to describe the situation in terms that concerned laypeople can understand. I wish I thought I'd run out of things to write about soon, but it doesn't look that way.

  7. Mary Anna,

    I read your post on DorothyL and wanted to reply. I have not read your post-Katrina book, but will definitely check into it. I live on the westbank of New Orleans, between the gulf and the river, very near to a canal that connects the two.

    Our fear here is that if the oil makes it to our neck of the gulf, it's a direct shot to the canal and then to the river. We're not sure how we'll be affected, whether oil will contaminate our drinking supply, whether the chemicals they are using will give us or our children cancer some time in the future.

    The decision to remain gets more difficult with each hurricane season, and this oil spill is certainly not helping things.

    Thanks for taking the time to write about this. I think most people in the U.S are concerned about gas prices and if they'll be able to buy shrimp, but the ramifications are so much more serious than that, especially for the fisherman, crabbers, etc., whose livelihoods will never be the same.

    Holli Castillo
    Gumbo Justice

  8. Thanks so much for sharing, Mary Anna. It is truly a tragedy of unknown proportions. I just wonder how much ill-treatment our planet can take.

  9. Margaret, your use of the word "unknown" cuts to the heart of this crisis. We don't know how long it will last, we don't know what was in those dispersants being put into the Gulf, we don't know how to clean up several parishes worth of fouled swamp...we just don't know much.

    Holli, thanks for sharing the concerns of the people on the West Bank. I have family on the West Bank in Algiers--slept there Sunday night, in fact--and I hadn't thought of the canals. The think that must be remembered about New Orleans is that water affects *everything*. This is why the city is there in the first place. Any country who ever hoped to exploit North America, and historically our country is the beneficiary of the efforts of all the countries who were here before, knew that the Mississippi River was the key to everything. And the site for New Orleans was chosen because it was close enough to Lake Ponchartrain to give water access on both sides. (Also because it poked a little further out of the swamps than the surrounding territory.)

    Because of all this, there are canals *everywhere.* Katrina taught the rest of the country that. I'll pray with you all that the oil doesn't get to the canals of the West Bank.