Gulf Coast Special: Paradise Lost

The grief and anguish South Louisiana residents have experienced for nearly two months as their fragile coastline and its bounty of wildlife drown in BP Deepwater Horizon toxic black goo is as horrifying for many as the heartbreak wrought five years ago by Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing levee failures.

One of this region’s most charming attributes has been the ease with which strangers talk to each other in public places. Now, these strangers who would normally be discussing the price of crawfish either talk angrily about the worst U.S. oil spill invading their bayous or are unable to speak at all. This anger and these feelings of helplessness are déjà vu for New Orleanians who watched 80 percent of their city flood in 2005.

While New Orleans has largely rebuilt, the cultural diaspora has changed the city’s fabric forever, and the scars from Katrina run deep. There are also positive changes: Good Samaritans still visit to help rebuild and often stay; there is a local social consciousness that makes sporadic appearances and overrides the historic laissez faire; and the losing-est franchise in the NFL won the Super Bowl this year, sparking a collective emotional high that reminds us why the city slogan of nearly two dozen years has been “New Orleans: Proud to Call It Home.”

After 2005, bumper stickers were changed unofficially to: “New Orleans: Proud to Swim Home.” To be able to smile about the Katrina catastrophe proves what a unique and resilient lot these South Louisianians are.

This time around, the Deepwater Horizon death toll since 11 souls perished when the oil rig blew has been in pelicans, sea turtles, dolphins, oysters, shrimp and hundreds of other species, as well as hundreds of miles of marshy coastline, bays and bayous. It also threatens one of the economic lifelines of New Orleans — its commercial seafood industry.

Cleanup crews on the water and the beaches collect mountains of sludge and shipfuls of slimey goo, but the jury is out as to whether the region can recover from this latest catastrophe, no matter how resilient its people are. The long-lasting repercussions of this epic oil spill on the coastal ecosystem are more than most of us can imagine.

That’s because we can’t see an end to this disaster. The Exxon Valdez oil spill happened fairly quickly, and then Alaskans spent the next decade cleaning up the mess. The extent of the Deepwater Horizon spill is so massive that some forecasts envision loop currents carrying tar balls to European beaches.

One rare certainty in this whole morass is there are more questions than answers. Here are a few of those questions heard about town in recent weeks.

Should Louisiana immediately retire the “Sportsman’s Paradise” headline that has graced its license plates since the 1950s? Not only will South Louisiana be the last place anyone will want to go for recreational fishing or hunting for the next couple of decades, but it also will likely be the end of commercial fishing in these waters for years to come.

Will New Orleans’ restaurants soon be serving flash-frozen seafood from Asia at twice the price of the soon-to-be-extinct local seafare? Scientists are speculating that even fish caught elsewhere — such as the giant Atlantic bluefin tuna — could join the extinction list because their spawning grounds are the Gulf waters off the Louisiana coast in April and May. Tourism has already plummeted from Grand Isle, La., to the emerald coasts of Pensacola, Fla., as vacationers steer clear of tar balls. How many tourist-dependent businesses will fail this summer on the Gulf Coast?

Louisiana’s beloved state bird, the brown pelican, was wiped out in its home state by pesticides in the 1960s and had to be imported for years from Florida until a breeding population could be established. The brown pelican was removed from the endangered species list only last year. How can they possibly survive this attack? At week six of the spill, more than 820 birds had been collected, and of those, three-fourths were already dead.

The oil-strangled marshes and bayous won’t provide much of a hurricane buffer zone, and in the wake of the coastal damage from Katrina, the mayor of New Orleans announced that any storm of Category 2 strength or higher could prompt an evacuation order. Won’t storm damage become increasingly more severe, and coastal erosion accelerate?

The ports of New Orleans, Mobile, Ala., and Gulfport, Miss., issue daily updates that vessels are calling on time and cargo is moving on schedule. As the 70,000-square-mile oil sheen moves closer to shore, will ships have to start diverting to other ports if their engine water intake valves only suck up Louisiana sweet crude instead of seawater?

My neighbor is stockpiling canned goods and bags of rice in anticipation of the disruption of food deliveries at grocery stores. No one who suffered through months of shortages after Katrina is questioning her logic.

Oil continues to gush from the mile-deep blowout, and BP is bearing the brunt of a nation’s frustration stemming from a numbing sense of powerlessness because there is no end in sight. If BP doesn’t deserve this criticism, why aren’t more boats and people being deployed for the cleanup?

If nothing else comes of this tragedy, shouldn’t every U.S. voter demand federal reform of the regulation of the oil industry? No drilling should be allowed unless the technology is also there to stop the deep wounds from such damage. Otherwise, any coastal resident could wake up one day like we did to find a corner of paradise gone.

One more rare certainty in all this despair is that it’s all too easy to make a heaven of hell, or a hell of heaven. That’s what John Milton tells us in his epic poem that the devil discovered.

Janet Plume, senior editor of Breakbulk magazine, a sister publication of The Journal of Commerce, has lived in New Orleans for nearly 30 years. Contact her at jplume@breakbulk.com.
 

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