‘We need all the help we can get’

As waves of oil crash against the Gulf Coast, locals are racing to contain the damage—and save a way of life

Carolyn Cole / LA Times

Capt. Bill Suckow has been flying along the Louisiana coastline for more than 40 years. His keen eyes pick out massive, quick-moving schools of pogy in the water below. Typically, he would be directing fishing boats to intercept the schools, but today there is no fishing. He steers his single-engine Cessna Skyhawk along the edge of the marshland, pointing out landmarks and features, and two things become immediately clear from this bird’s-eye view: the beauty of the landscape, and the vulnerability of this exposed stretch of coastline. Islands of green and gold marsh grass glow in the evening light, criss-crossed by sparkling bayou waters. Meanwhile, just out in the Gulf of Mexico, a massive oil sheen rests upon the surface of the water, stretching as far as the eye can see, as a result of the catastrophic BP oil spill. “That sheen’s not the problem,” Suckow says. “It’s what’s underwater that’s so dangerous.”

Beneath that surface lurks the heavy crude oil, and that danger has begun to strike all along the Gulf Coast. Like long tentacles, the waves of crude oil have sneaked over, under and around meagre defences to land on beaches and spoil marshes. Oil has already been detected up to 12 miles inland in Louisiana, sending officials and residents scrambling to respond to and contain the damage. Two major pelican rookeries have been drenched so far, hundreds of birds and mammals have died, and countless fishing, shrimping and oyster grounds have been closed. “I don’t worry about myself,” Suckow says as his plane passes over a harbour full of idle boats. “My company is sending me west where I can work. But the guy down there who has his life savings invested in his fishing boat—he’s in trouble right now.”

One such guy is Albert Ballard, captain of the After Dark, which sails out of Grand Isle. Ballard, 38, has been a fisherman all his life, and his boat provides work and income to support three families. Now, he and his crew work long shifts scouting the Gulf coastline, searching for the dangerous and elusive stretches of oil. “I’ve been everywhere from Morgan City to Dauphin, Alabama, and there’s oil on all of it,” he says.

When his scouting crew discovers an oil deposit, they radio in the location, and a local task force arrives to conduct skimming and cleanup operations. “It took about a week for it to hit me,” Ballard says. “But then I realized how bad this was going to be. This could be the end of my way of life.”

Ballard’s boat is now scheduled to be equipped with what he calls the “new Kevin Costner invention.” Costner, the famous actor and environmental activist, has been helping to develop oil spill technology through an organization called Ocean Therapy Solutions, and its devices are about to be employed in the cleanup effort. Using centrifugal force, the machine is supposed to separate oil from water, purifying water up to 97 per cent. Still untested under these conditions, the high-profile technology, and the star-studded attention it brings, does inspire a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape. “We’re on a downhill drag,” Ballard says. “We need all the help we can get.”

Up and down the coast, the sentiment is the same. Sorrow, shock and anger grow with every day that the BP gusher continues to spew thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. “These guys just want to help out,” says Josie Cheramie of the fishermen. She works with the Grand Isle Office of Tourism, which has turned into an impromptu disaster response centre. “They can’t fish, and there’s nothing worse than being stuck on land.”

Cheramie compiles rosters and information on local fishermen and crews, which are turned into the mayor’s office. Boats and crews are offered paid positions assisting with emergency response efforts. Local captains and their workers have valuable knowledge of the local waters, and their boats are rigged to scout, lay out boom, skim oil off the surface of the water and more. “Sure, they need a paycheque,” Cheramie says, “but more than that, they want to try to save their world and their industry.”

On the mainland, tensions are flaring between residents, local officials, the federal government and BP executives. As weeks continue to tick off the calendar, and the oil spill continues to grow more and more massive, frustrations have reached boiling points. At a town hall meeting in St. Bernard Parish, Gary Holland pressed BP officials with the question that has been burning collectively around the region, if not the world: “What are you thinking, with no backup plan? How can BP attempt an effort like that without being fully prepared for contingencies?”

“We hired what we thought was the safest contractor out there, Transocean,” said Glenn DaGian, a BP spokesperson. “They had the world’s most famous blowout preventer, made by Cameron. All I can tell you is it was a colossal screw-up.”

A screw-up that now has the state of Louisiana pitted against the federal government. Gov. Bobby Jindal has signed off on orders to begin dredging operations that will attempt to build miles of six-foot-high sand berms, or man-made barrier islands, to shelter the fragile coastline from the onslaught of oil, even though the actions could be in violation of federal rules. Opponents of the plan say the barriers will take too long to build and cost too much, but supporters claim the federal government has dragged its feet unnecessarily in the review process, wasting precious weeks. In an open letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, Louisiana Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell urged immediate action in order to avoid “an unnecessary constitutional confrontation between the state and federal governments.”

About 700 feet above ground, Capt. Suckow wheels his plane around to head back toward Port Sulphur. This is his last trip along this stretch of Louisiana that he calls home, before Daybrook Fisheries relocates him to the west. “I don’t know when I’ll be back,” he admits.

The view seems almost serene, but the landscape below indicates a growing siege mentality. While the oil spill mounts its assault, sending waves of crude against the coastline, military helicopters and earthmoving equipment continue to build defensive fortifications, filling in breaches and closing natural inlets. Small marsh islands, covered in snowy white egrets, are ringed with protective boom. Historically, the Gulf Coast has been home to remarkably resilient people and a uniquely adaptive environment, but the question remains: how long can the Gulf Coast—its residents, its economy, and its ecology—hold out, and against what odds?

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