Monday, June 14, 2010

Hurricanes: The Big Fear

The people of Grand Isle are resilient. Every year they spend the winter and spring rebuilding, prepping for the summer, and prepping for the upcoming hurricane season. There is a species of algae that lives on the Pacific coast of the United States. These sea palms, Postelsia palmaeformis, attach to rocks way out at the edge of the intertidal zone. They get thrashed by the waves and storms that rips everything else off of the rocks, but they bend and snap back up after the waves pass. They do this because they can take advantage of the resources available to any species that can occupy these fringe habitats.

What we learn at Williams-Mystic is that there are threads that bind our coasts together, and so I can say that these people of Grand Isle weather the storms out here at the very edge of the Louisiana coast and snap back. Chris told us in March that the reason he stays year after year, storm after storm, is because this place is paradise. Being here in the summer I can see how true that is. In the midst of all this chaos there are times when all I can think is that this is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.
The sun and sea breeze hits me as I rumble down LA 1 with the windows down and Ginger's country mix playing. At first I felt guilty for enjoying moments like this, but I realize that I can't help it. This place is paradise and is important to understand that because it is a reminder of why it is so vital that we save it. The people live here and withstand the storms because they can jump on their fishing boats docked in their back yards and go out and feed their families. They can drive their golf carts along the side of the road to go visit with their extended family and friends(this is an incredibly tight community), and they can scoot over to the beach to enjoy the sun and the beautiful Gulf waters. It is hot and hazy today, with enough breeze to bring relief from the intense heat of the last couple of days. A perfect day in a perfect place. Grand Isle is irreplaceable.
What we have learned from the people we have talked with and the conversations we have overheard is that the locals are doing their best to deal with the clean up efforts and the damage done to their businesses. What they can't imagine is what will happen if there is a big storm. Rarely do I hear them say "when" there is a big storm, because the inevitability of that event is too much to comprehend. Unfortunately this is supposed to be a big year for hurricanes. According to NOAA, there are predicted to be:
  • 14 to 23 Named Storms (top winds of 39 mph or higher), including:
  • 8 to 14 Hurricanes (top winds of 74 mph or higher), of which:
  • 3 to 7 could be Major Hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5; winds of at least 111 mph)
Everyone here knows what that means: if(WHEN) there is a storm this island will get covered with toxic oil. The lessons of Katrina are known: when the levees around New Orleans burst an oil tank owned by the Murphy Oil Company was damaged, spilling a million gallons of oil into the Chalmette neighborhood. Many residents never came back to their damaged homes and of those that did, many got sick.

I spoke with one woman here that said that if there is a storm coming through she will not leave the island, not matter how big it is. Her fear, and the fears of everyone here, is that if they leave the island will be condemned and they will never be able to return.
This graveyard is set up in the front yard of a home here on the island. We are not just talking about the lifestyle of the 2,000 residents of Grand Isle, but also the things that 400,000 people enjoy when they come to visit every year.
Compared to the devastation that will occur when a storm coats the island in oil, Katrina was a walk in the park. You can see it in people's eyes: they know if this happens they cannot recover. You cannot decontaminate an entire island.

I have tried my best to keep it together. I have been doing this by staying angry. I am angry at the negligence I have seen, the sloppiness I have seen in the clean up efforts, the shady business that is clearly going down, and the misinformation that is being spread. You should be angry to! Do not believe anything you are being told unless what you are being told is pissing you off. But when people here talk about the hurricane season there is nothing but sadness and loss in their eyes. I hear it again and again: a hurricane will be the end. And that makes me cry.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sunday June 13th, 2010 Grand Isle Louisiana: Amidst An Oil Spill More Disastrous Than One Can Imagine

Ginger Steiner writes:

Halfway through our trip and we are finally ready to contact fishermen about food vouchers. I set myself up outside in the Louisiana summer heat under a pavilion at our motel. I was nervous about making that first phone call. Would they listen to what I had to say? Would my New England accent be too fast for them? Would they be offended? My first contact was answered by the fisherman’s wife. She received my offer very humbly and graciously. She informed me that they are currently on food stamps, so if someone else needed it more than them then the vouchers should go to them. I made note of that and put them down as a yes for receiving vouchers. A three-minute conversation that had gone smoothly. Exhale, that wasn’t so bad, onto the next one! After a few rings a rough sounding fisherman answered. Images of this proud, weathered, tough fisherman taking major offense to my offerings ran through my head. I pushed my nervous feelings aside and told him the program I am with, why I am on Grand Isle, and what we would like to do to help. A short pause and from the other end I hear a stern “Yes, absolutely”. Exhale again, “Great!” I say. I am thanked and the conversation ends.

This continued as I proceeded with my list of contacts. I received excited “yes’s” from wives; fishermen explaining how they are trying to make ends meet for their families (and one fisherman expressed the importance of him feeding his dog and seven cats with a jolly, booming laugh); and many expressions of gratitude from these sweet people. The people I was worried would be angry with me began telling me their stories, sharing their pain with me.

One such couple moved me so deeply I couldn’t hold back my feelings and I began to cry as well. I dialed the number and after a few rings an elderly man answered. I introduced myself and our plan to help. Halfway through my introduction he interrupted me so that he could get his wife on the line with us because he is a little hard of hearing. Again I introduced myself and what we were aiming to do. They told me that they live on Grand Isle and have for forty years. He has been fishing for thirty years. He told me he is struggling with emphysema and tried to take his boat out to work with BP but couldn’t do it with the oil. BP sent them a check for five thousand dollars, but that does not go far and they had no idea when the next check would come. They are living in uncertainty. I expressed my desire to help them with this horrible disaster. He declared that Grand Isle is a beautiful island and this is surely a horrible thing to happen. He pointed out that oil is taking over the island. His accent was getting thicker; I was having a difficult time understanding him. “If a storm comes now”, he says with a shaky voice, “it will all be ruined”. His voice trails off and his wife explains that he gets very emotional with all of this, they both do. I realized that they were crying. These people were opening their hearts to me. She states that if this continues they will have to leave the island. After recovering his composure the husband gets back on the line and in a strong voice states, “I just hope and pray that this isn’t the devastation of our fisheries, I hope they can make it back”. He breaks down again; they are crying together. Through a broken sentence she says, “This is supposed to be a happy time for us, next Sunday is our fiftieth wedding anniversary”.

After this heavy conversation was ended with many thanks and a “bless your heart” I hung up and wiped tears from my eyes. I headed back to the motel room to give Rachel an update. As I went through the list with her I realized that I had stumbled upon twelve hearts of gold. The people made sure to tell me that they were on food stamps or had received some sort of payment from BP, or that they were trying to do another job to make ends meet. They were ensuring me to give the vouchers to someone more in need than them if there was not enough to go around. They were concerned for their families, but also for their neighbors, their community, and their island.

When Rachel and I took a boat ride on the Gulf and viewed the oil and destruction it is causing I recall experiencing an immense feeling of helplessness. Doubting our capabilities, I was unsure if we were really going to make a difference to the hurting community of Grand Isle. After speaking with these people I felt more compelled than ever to help them. In the words of Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski at the press conference on Friday, “To the people of Louisiana: you have great love and determination and we need to have the same as we stand by your side”.

Tiger Booms

These are the tiger booms that I have been mentioning. The orange tubes are filled with water and are supposed to form a barrier to prevent oil from getting too far up the beach when the tides bring in the heavy slicks. There are several places that I have see where the tubes are deflated or are simply missing. Behind the tubes is a ridge of sand. I can't really see how that is an effective barrier for anything other than humans: this is the line past which only clean up workers are allowed.

This is for my own safety, I have been told by security officials. If I were to pass this sand ridge I would have to be decontaminated upon my return. The decontamination process has been described differently to different people. Chris was told that he would have to have his shoes decontaminated. He told me that somebody from Washington was so frustrated at this that he threw his shoes at the security guys and stomped off to his helicopter barefoot. When I asked what the decontamination process entailed, Ginger and I were told that we would be stripped naked and hosed off. But perhaps this is only the procedure for young women.
The workers need only rinse off their boots in these kiddie pools before crossing back over the tiger booms, a process which somehow seems a lot less humiliating than what we were threatened with.
Here are the rakes and shovels used to clean up the oil. Having been raked across the sand, the oil globs are shoveled into plastic bags. After only a couple of shovel fulls, these bags are tied off. It seems quite wasteful to this lay-person.
Everywhere I go on this island the sight of tiger booms and plastic bags is constant.

What is on the Beach?

Yesterday morning we went over the the eastern end of Grand Isle to see what is going on at the State Park. After paying the admission fee and entering the park it was immediately clear that we were entering a militarized zone. Three huge army trucks barreled down the road in front of us as we made our way to the camping area and the western end of the park beach. Only about a third of the campsites were filled, and we have been told that they are all occupied by the media. Nobody would actually want to visit the beach, of course, because it has become a fairly hostile area. As you can see from the sign above, in the state park they were not even allowing people on the area of beach above the tiger booms.
Having passed the sign, we snapped this picture. The security guy on the right watched us for the whole fifteen minutes that we were there. He was on his phone the entire time and was occasionally joined by other security officers. Lets remember: these people are NOT State Troopers or even State Park employees. You cannot go anywhere on or near the beach without knowing that you are being watched very carefully.
Three years ago, when I was a Williams-Mystic student, this is where we walked across to the beach. These are the bath houses and board walk in the center of the park beach. We got pretty close to the trucks before people started to notice us. The military seems to be more relaxed about where you go when compared to the blue-shirted security guys. This is of course another situation where it was impossible to get to the beach.
When we finally got to the eastern end of the park we came upon what appears to be the worker's base camp. We have not seen tents like these near the beaches anywhere else on the island. On the right is a bus that is just starting to unload workers. We were there around noon, so presumably the buses that were arriving were filled with workers taking their lunch breaks here. The gates and lines set up in front of the bus are marked with zone numbers. My assumption is that this is where people line up at the beginning of the day to get trucked around to different sections of the beach. Under the tents we could see that they were set up to feed and supply the small army of workers that have been deployed to clean the beaches on all of Grand Isle.

We have heard many of the locals complaining about how little the clean up crews work. When we arrived on Thursday we were told that the crews work for twenty minutes and then rest for forty minutes. Yesterday they were bumped down to fifteen minutes on every hour. It is the opinion of the locals that this is outrageous and inefficient, and they know how hot it gets.
Finally, I photo of what they workers are cleaning up. This is what the oil looks like along the edge of the beach. I was only able to take this picture because we were allowed to walk out on the pier at the park. These little reddish globules speckled the beach right now. We have been told that the oil comes in waves, and that we are between waves right now due to the weather patterns that control the movement of the oil. So this is the beach on a "good day."

I will take this opportunity to relate what it feels like to be here now. Every morning when I walk out of my chilled motel room the hot, humid air takes my breath away. Throughout the day the wind picks up and the humidity becomes more bearable, but it is still hot. The first time I crossed the bridge from Cheniere Caminada over to Grand Isle I could distinctly smell the stink of oil. That quickly passed after we got to the island. Only occasionally since then have I smelled oil. That is not to say that it is not a concern. We have been told that when the slick comes onto the beach the whole island smells. Floyd Lasseigne told us yesterday that his daughter got sick the last time that happened. Take home message: though there is not a heavy oil slick on the beach today and it does not smell now, it will be back when the currents and winds turn.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


Ginger and I were invited over to Chris' house today for a big family party. While we were there we spent a lot of time talking and joking with Floyd Lasseigne, Chris' brother-in-law. Floyd and Chris love nothing more than having fun and making up stories about the other, but when it comes to the oil spill they are serious. They both know that this spill is spelling out the end of their way of life. Especially Floyd. Floyd has been fishing these waters all of his life, and comes from a long line of fishermen. He told me that he got interviewed and met the president. When I got back to the motel I looked up the video and was devastated by what I saw:

Floyd Lasseigne, Fisherman

From Chris' house you can see across to Floyd's house, with his boat tied up on the dock. Floyd can't work for BP because he was just battling cancer and his doctor told him to stay away from the oil. Did BP pay him $70,000 for lost income this year? Nope, they cut him a $5,000 check and called it a day. His response to BP is displayed on his home:

It says:
BP You ruined our futures and our heritage.

BP Commercial fisherman need yors prayers and help please!

BP Please stop spraying dispersants. You are killing our wildlife and eco-systems. What's next? US

To our customers we are out of business until further notice due to BP oil disaster

BP CEO Tony Hayward said "I'd like my life back." What the hell do you think we want? BP's negligence took away our future, livelihood, and heritage.

Sloppy, BP, very sloppy

Photo(from left): Senator Julie Quinn(LA), Councilman John Young(Jefferson Parish, LA), Allen Gaudet(a local fisherman), and Chris Hernandez(Grand Isle Street Superintendent)

After the Press conference yesterday Ginger and I were sitting with Chris waiting for the room to empty out when we were approached by Louisiana State Senator Julie Quinn and Jefferson Parish Councilman John Young. Quinn asked Chris if he could bring her to see the frozen pelicans, then asked if we would like to join them. We drove to the eastern end of the island where the Louisiana Department of Fish and Wildlife had tents set up for oiled bird intake.

As it turns out, the BP beach clean-up is not the only operation on this island that is cloaked in mystery. When Quinn asked to see the oiled birds she was refused and given a story about how they were shipped to another cleaning facility, that this was only intake. She asked again, this time about where they were kept until they were shipped out. Well it turns out that there were birds in the next tent over, but we couldn't see them because they would get stressed out. Ok, well that makes sense, but could we see the dead birds? No, no, they were also transported away. Every time Quinn asked a question, even if she was asking the same one twice, she got different stories and it seemed like the guy we were talking to was getting confused by his own story. One thing he was pretty sure about was that they had a 90% success rate with their oiled bird rehabilitation program. Really? It really seems as though he might have had less to hide if they were doing such a good job. After she had enough of these stories, Quinn told the guy that if he wouldn't show her the birds there, then she wanted to go out to Queen Bess Island to see them for herself. He said he would need a high level of clearance for that to happen, so she asked him who and got on her phone and called the people herself. And just like that we were waiting for a boat to bring us out to Queen Bess.

While we waited another boat dropped off an oiled pelican in a carrying case. The Senator and I were close enough to go take a look. The pelican, which naturally has brown markings anyway, was a solid shade of mousy brown. It looked disoriented and subdued. Quinn was trying to take pictures when a Fish and Wildlife official noticed and told her to stop. He claimed that the flash was startling to the bird. She offered to turn off the flash, but at that point she was told that in truth they just weren't allowing anyone to take pictures. Why not? She is a SENATOR! I think that what is even more startling than having a flash go off in your eyes is having your FEATHERS COVERED IN OIL! just a thought.
Queen Bess Island is important to Louisiana because it is one island where the population of brown pelicans, Pelecanus occidentalis, has really been thriving. Brown pelicans, the Louisiana state bird, were all but extinct in Louisiana in the 1960's due to DDT and habitat loss. Population restoration efforts have brought the pelican back, with Queen Bess Island standing as a model for effective repopulation.

Queen Bess Island is located just north east of Grand Isle. Because of its importance as a bird breeding habitat, this island was designated to have booms completely encircle the island to prevent further oil damage. I say that because it has already been hit by oil. In the photo above you can see the booms that have been set up. The orange boom forms the outermost ring and is supposed to act as a barrier. As you can see, the reddish brown oil is gathering there. Any oil that manages to splash over this barrier is then supposed to be caught by the second white boom, which is made up of some sort of absorbent material. While we were out on the water we saw numerous boats moving around oiled and fresh booms to and from large supply vessels which normally service the oil rigs in the gulf. These booms are supposed to be replaced several times a day but there were several stretches where the booms were completely soaked with oil.

To learn more about this island, check out this video of Rachel Maddow looking at this same island:
Rachel Maddow at Queen Bess
As you can see, the manner in which these barriers are maintained is incredibly sloppy. These white booms should be stretched out, but instead they are all clumped up here. We also saw several twenty meter long booms stretched out in the bay. They were not attached to each other or to anything else. They did not create a perimeter around anything. They were just sitting out there bobbing in the waves. Effective? I think not.
And neither did these folks. Here we have Chris, Julie Quinn, and John Young looking out at the sloppiness of the booms surrounding Queen Bess Island. It was truly unbelievable how terribly maintained this perimeter is. Young kept saying how proud the state was when the brown pelican populations rebounded, and this island is the poster child for that effort.
Here are workers going through the motions of reconnecting the booms. As you can see, there was a forty meter gap in the booms that Allen Gaudet told us just opened up that day. The workers on these boats were resting until our boat came alongside, at which point they finally mobilized. There were several other gaps in the perimeter booms, and many more places where they were deployed in such a haphazard way that they were functionally useless.

We went out there to see how the oil was affecting birds on Queen Bess, and we certainly saw that. But what we saw most clearly is that not much is being done to reduce the amount of oil damaging the island. The barrier island restoration efforts, which include restructuring islands and reintroductions of native plants and animals, are now essentially a wash. The oil that is in marshes will kill them. A local fisherman told me that he tried wiping the oil off of some marsh grass and it was impossible. When the plants die, the land cannot be stabilized and it will be lost.

The slack attitude that is evident in the way BP is trying to mitigate the effects of the oil is truly outrageous. If you are reading this right now and are getting as pissed off as I am, please let me know if you have ideas about how to stop this sloppiness. I am trying my best to think clearly about how to best effect change here. Grand Isle is on the news every day even back in Mystic, CT. How is it that a place with so much media attention can be managed so poorly by BP?

BP Blocking Media Access?

Remember when I talked about the "security" guys? Well here is an excellent video I found of just how weird things are on the beach. What exactly are they trying to hide? Why can't we talk to the workers? Like I said before, it is common knowledge among the locals here that anybody who works for BP is threatened to not talk to the media because they will lose their jobs. What are they afraid their workers will say? And what are they afraid of us seeing? All up and down the beach you see these security guys in blue shirts and I cannot help but think that they look like overseers.
When I ran into one of these guys yesterday I asked him who exactly he was trying to keep secure. They certainly don't try to pretend that they are simply job managers. No, they are securing something. I asked if he was supposed to keep us from going over the tiger booms. Well, no, that wasn't it. We can go over the booms if we want, we will just be decontaminated if we do. He said that his job was to make sure everyone was accounted for. Is this an admission that they are employing disreputable people to clean up the oil? Or does it mean that they are trying to control the interactions between the media and the workers.