What better way to kick off this project then with a crawfish boil - a quintessential of Louisiana food culture! My friend Trish Kelly offered to host the event at her house in the Bywater neighborhood of downtown New Orleans. Artist and North Shore native, Tommy Hebert, agreed to man the boil. The soiree that would serve as the inauguration to our film took place just one week before anniversary day, on a fortuitously warm and sunny Saturday afternoon. While our friends were busy sucking heads and downing beers we set up a filming station on the back porch of Trish’s old Creole cottage and, one by one, we pulled our friends aside and asked them to relate their experiences living through the BP Oil Spill. The following is just a selection of what a couple of them had to say.
Carrie Crockett, writer and Humane Society Volunteer, recalls that she was with a boyfriend enjoying a warm spring day at a Biloxi beach when she overheard some beach-goers talking about an explosion in the gulf. By the time she returned to her home in New Orleans, it had become evident that what had transpired in the Gulf was to be a disaster of epic proportion. Carrie felt an urgency that compelled her to return to the beach for a final adieu before oil desecrated Gulf shores. As she waded into Perdido Bay, Carrie was horrified to see a noxious slick in the foam and spray of the tide at her feet and hasn’t set foot in the Gulf since. “I get a sore throat everytime I go and I know it’s not safe... I don’t eat the fish when I’m there and I don’t go in the water anymore. I don’t think I’ll be comfortable for the rest of my life in the Gulf of Mexico”.
A longtime volunteer of the Humane Society, Carrie was one of its first responders to survey the damage to the Gulf Shore ecosystem. Upon arriving to Grand Isle with the intention of rescuing contaminated wildlife, Carrie was frustrated with the amount of red tape she encountered: “They would not let us help. The human society, that’s what we do.” Officials already on the ground had the entire area quarantined and only BP-contracted professionals with previous HAZMAT certification were allowed access; although Carrie concedes, “They did allow us to survey the area in a boat.” The situation was dire, but what she most laments is the inadequacy of the supposed clean-up effort: “There was supposed to be all these people cleaning up. We circled around 3 hours and we saw one boat. BP was not letting people help. A lot of people came to help and all I could do was organize a prayer service. No one was cleaning, no one was doing anything. The beach was quarantined and if you crossed the restricted area you would be arrested.” Finally, after much doggedness, The Humane Society was allowed a staging area for civilians to deliver birds and other contaminated wildlife, before transport to a designated cleaning facility coordinated by BP and its affiliates.
Now two years later, Carrie scorns the short-term memory of a public that has already forgotten the Spill. “I think it left the news and public consciousness so quickly because the Gulf Coast and particularly Florida wanted it to. The tourism industry wanted it to.” In contrast, Carrie insists that we are reminded daily of Hurricane Katrina. Carrie, a long-time advocate for the rights and welfare of animals, is prostrate at a value-system, in which other species hold such low ranking.
Dan Favre, a conservationist with the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN), provided us with a brief history of coastal erosion and how the Oil Spill affected this already crippled ecosystem. We asked him his initial reaction to this great tragedy. “I don’t remember exactly the moment I learned that the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded... but I do remember wanting to deny the importance of the thing. I’m an environmentalist. I’ve worked for a lot of years to protect and restore the Gulf of Mexico. And so, it took a little while for the idea that one of the biggest assaults to this ecosystem is happening right now.”
At the time of the Oil Spill, Dan was in the midst of putting together a door-to-door campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of an ever receding coastline. He emphasises the point that coastal erosion is the most pressing issue, trumping even oil contamination in terms of primacy. “We lose a football field's worth of wetlands every hour due to coastal erosion,” Dan interjects in a discourse on the mechanics of the region’s delicate ecosystem. Here’s an adumbrated version of what Dan had to say: The Mississippi River carries with it an enormous amount of sediment, which, in its annual overflow, is what built the delta, including the ground on which our cities and towns have been built. In order to prevent the consequent deluge of these inhabited areas, as well as to ensure that commercial trade can run unabated, the river has been corralled off by a system of levees and dams. However, without the river’s regenerative deposits, the land is sinking. Moreover, the oil and gas industry has contributed to the destruction of surrounding wetlands by dredging canals, in which to lay pipeline. Tens of thousands of miles of artificial canals have subsequently led to saltwater intrusion and increased wave action. The result is that the wetlands and barrier islands, which provide inhabited areas with a buffer-zone from Gulf-spawned hurricanes, are rapidly disappearing. Without this buffer, our cities and towns become increasingly more vulnerable to storms, such as the likes of Katrina. “It’s really caused this catastrophic loss; this is the fastest disappearing landmass on earth,” Dan remonstrates. And now, the oil spill has added a new level of urgency, threatening a unique habitat that not only protects our cities from storms, but literally feeds us -- the Gulf Coast provides for roughly one third of the entire domestic seafood industry.
The GRN ultimately decided to shift the focus of their campaign. Dan recalls the meeting when this conversion took place. Just days after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, The GRN hired a plane in order to survey and document the disaster. Dan was shocked by what he saw. Perhaps more shocking than the raw impact of so much oil was the fact that no one was doing anything: “There was an oil slick for as far as the eye could see. There were like two boats that are working to skim or do something, you’re not really sure. You got BP and the coastguard meanwhile are saying, ‘we’re mobilizing all sorts of resources - we’ll take care of this. Don’t worry. Nothing to see here - talking about the dozens of boats and all of these planes that are doing all this work, but when you go out and actually look to see it - that just wasn’t actually happening.” It was the discrepancy between official reports and what was actually happening on the ground that spurred the GRN into action. Dan is part of the team that continues to prove instrumental in monitoring both the effects of the Oil Spill and the recovery effort, as well as lobbying the government for effective legislation.
Now two years later, Dan insists that the struggle is far from over. The GRN remains hard at work and much of their resources are focused on congress, who have yet to pass a single piece of legislation to address the BP Oil Spill and restoration resources. “We’ve already had this huge wetlands loss issue and there’s a lot of ideas about how to fix that. We can put the Mississippi River back to work, build these diversions that put dirt and water out into the wetlands areas, go fill in some of those canals that were dredged in the past -- it takes a lot of resources, it takes political will. Unfortunately those resources have been short in coming, but all of sudden here is this opportunity.” Dan is referring to the Clean Water Act , underwhich BP is going to have to pay between 5 and 20 billion dollars in fines. Under the current legislation however, that money will go directly into the coffers of the U.S. treasury. The GRN is working hard on pressuring Congress to pass legislation, which would ensure that a sizable portion of that money is earmarked for Gulf restoration.
...Since the time of this interview, Congress has effectively passed the RESTORE Act, which will dedicate a significant portion of BP’s Clean Water Act fines to Gulf restoration. This has been possible thanks to groups like the GRN and an enormous amount of community support. Dan and the GRN will continue to work to watchdog the process and ensure that the money is spent responsibly and efficiently. Given the inherent corruption that is unfortunately an intrinsic part of our political system, the general public must remain proactive to ensure that funds are used properly. Please log on to http://healthygulf.org to see how you can help.