It’s day 49 of the Gulf oil catastrophe and I am back on the ground, this time in southern Louisiana with Cindy Hoffman and Krista Schlyer to see for myself the true impact on wildlife.
We hit the road early this morning and headed to the BP incident command headquarters to meet with Rowan Gould, the acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Kind of odd (and a bit disconcerting) to go into the belly of the beast, but once we were there, I was glad we entered. Lots of activity, a lot of intensity and even more security. After some negotiating by Rowan, we were able to get into the back rooms where all the action was happening. Before he negotiated with Mike Ulster, the head of the efforts for BP in Louisiana, the BP security would not even let us look in the windows of the rooms.
As Rowan toured us around, I was astonished at the number of people from all over the country and from numerous agencies that had been deployed to tackle this crisis. Mike Ulster, the overall incident commander for La. from BP’s north slope operation in AK, and I saw FWS staff from Florida, Tennessee, California, Virginia and many other points across the country (former colleagues of mine had left already full-time jobs back home to respond to this disaster). The place was also crawling with military, Coast Guard, National Guard troops, and Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries staff. I have to admit, I was impresed by how coordinated the effort actually seemed to be.
Rooms full of FWS, Coast Guard and other staff at computers and phones tracking the data on the spill, printing out real-time maps, and directing others on the ground where to go to deploy booms, skimmers and conduct wildlife rescues. Rowan told us that helicopters fly a grid every day to gather data on the oil and wildlife. They report back to this central command center, which then deploys boats out to where wildlife is being impacted the most. Over fifty boats are staffed with rescue personnel and are out on the water every day, throughout the day, to capture oiled animals and bring them in for rehab. Just yesterday, they had captured 170 birds, five of them dead. He said it is really hard to get the oil off the birds, it’s just like Jello. This oil is way different than the oil in Valdez, AK. It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen.
We would soon experience this all for ourselves, as he suggested that we head down to Grand Isle to meet up with some of the Fish and Wildlife folks that would take us out on a boat. Se off we went, to Grand Isle, a small fishing and beach community that looked like every house on stilts was brand spankin’ new. We later learned from our boat captain that Hurricaine Katrina hit this part of the Gulf head-on and leveled most of the houses, so just about everything we were seeing was newly built. They were not even yet fully recovered from that natural disaster.
We boarded a small boat captained by one of the hundreds of fishermen recently hired by BP. He had been fishing these waters his whole life, (he told us he spends way more time on the water than on land) and now he and his son and their boats are employed by the very people that put him out of business. He was clearly from southern La. He was delightful to talk to, knew so much about the area and shared his knowledge about the whole reshaping of the region over the years, from the diversions of the mighty Mississippi River to the ongoing attempts to shore up the ecologically rich barrier islands scattered all throughout Barataria Bay. While the whole area is incredibly vast, the maximum depth is only about four feet, which make the globby oil all the more devastating to the ecology of the area.
The island was teeming with birds, a busy rookery for pelicans, egrets, roseatte spoonbirds and others. The sounds coming from the island were amazing, it was truly like listening to a bird symphony. I will say though, the smells were quite a bit less enchanting! A whole lot of birds in one place aren’t the neatest housekeepers around. The island was boomed with two rings all around, but the oil had easily made landfall due to some severe storms over the past couple of days. Many of the birds looked surprisingly clean, but some were obviously covered in oil.
Among those was a family of pelicans, with chicks that were coated in a thick carmel colored oil. Even the brush they were perched on was covered in the slime. These chicks can’t fly yet, but their parents, in their effort to feed and care for their young, head out into these now deadly waters searching for food. When they dive down to make their catch, they get covered in oil. Once they get back to their nests, in the process of feeding and sheilding their young from the blazing sun, the oil on their feathers drips off onto the very chicks they are trying to protect. Combined with many of the nests being “waterfront” property and subject to the tidal surges of oil, this easily put these and other chicks directly in harm’s way. As a mother myself, this was heartbreaking. While it was obvious the parents were doing all they could to raise these chicks, I fear it will be all for naught given how compromised they already are.
Rescues of birds are very challenging, as you can imagine. Officials need to be careful that they don’t cause more damage to the thousands of other birds nesting and rearing young on the island by getting in close to try and rescue one or two. The rescue team recorded what they saw, but needed a smaller boat that would not spook the birds as much as the motor boats we were in, which they did not have at the time. They would go back later for the oiled chicks.
Sadly after the completion of the afternoon inspection, we headed out to Queen Bess Island. I was particularly interested in getting out to this island because of all of the press on this area over the weekend. With so many birds drenched in oil, I feared the site would be unbearable to see. Our boat captain told us that Queen Bess had recently been restored, adding land and a rocky coast to protect the thriving rookery. Apparently all of the rechanneling of the Mississippi River by the Army Corps had really impacted this thriving island, causing water to erode these bird hotspots to the point of almost totally disappearing. The rocks around the island were coated in the slimy oil, clear evidence of the impact that was reported in the papers. They had managed to capture many of the worst-off birds over the weekend, and replace the booms, although the booms we saw were already saturated with oil once again and globs of it were floating all around.
By the time we got to Queen Bess, our rescue team had managed to get the smaller boat they could paddle up to the island. One of the rescuers, donning a white hazmat suit, got into the boat and paddled towards shore. His mission: to gently flush the birds on the shore so he could see which ones were so covered in oil that they could not fly. Fortunately, this trip was better than those of the recent past, and he did not find any in such a debilitating state. With the rescue mission over for the day, we headed back to shore. As we crossed back over Barataria Bay, it was hard not to notice the flotilla of fishing boats that have been converted with long simmers that almost look like wings hanging off each side of the vessels. These “fisherman” spend all day out in the Bay skimming the oil off the surface trying to “clean” the area. It’s hard to imagine ever getting an area that vast with such fast moving water ever clean, but you can’t help but be overwhelmingly impressed with the fortitude and determination and comraderie of all those hard working folks who are working tirelessly in unbelievably harsh weather conditions to get this job done. The daily temperatures and heat index rose above 112 degrees F, high enough to wither most humans, including me.
Driving back through Grand Isle at sunset, we decided to check out the beach and see what was happening there. We ran across a large clean-up crew that was packing up for the day. There were big man-made berms of sand that had recently been mounded all along the coast line. Huge culvert-like tubes fronted the sand berms for as far as we could see in either direction along the once (I’m sure) densely populated swimming area. Cars with Coast Guard and others were driving up and down the beach. It reminded me of the border wall, along the Mexico/US border. A safety officer came over to us to warn us not to touch anything or attempt to crawl over the berm to the ocean (why in the world would we do that?!). The whole area is now considered contaminated and if we got too close, we would be required to go through decontamination procedures. That was enough to discourage me from any significant exploration.
We headed back to New Orleans for the night, overwhelmed by what we saw but incredibly impressed by all the people working so hard to beat this beast of a spill. It’s so clear that this region is overwhlmingly impacted on so many levels for the future as far as we can see it. Let’s just continue to hope the the spectaular wetlands and incredible biological diversity can hang on while humans work hard to right this horrible wrong on the landscape.