Walking the Beach

Walking the Beach
BP Surveillance Team in Pass Christian on Memorial Day Weekend

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Out of the Chaos

My day started relatively early. I had a 1 1/2 hour drive from Gulfport, MS to Fair Hope Alabama, were I was going to meet my guide for the day, Mr. Tim Gothard. Tim is one of the National Wildlife Federation's most influential affiliate leaders. He has run the Alabama Wildlife Federation for nearly 12 years, and has grown the organization in terms of members, operating budget, and influence.

Tim is very busy, but agreed to put aside his duties for a day to introduce me to people who are able to shed some light on what is happening with the oil disaster, as well as take me to see places where the incursion of the oil can be seen plainly on sandy beaches and in once pristine bay waters.

Our first meeting was with LG Adams, Manager for the Weeks Bay Reserve, located on the east side of Mobile Bay. The Weeks Bay Reserve encompasses 6,000 acres of land and water in and around Weeks Bay and along Mobile Bay. The Reserve has a free educational interpretive center and two boardwalks. We talked for 2 hours about efforts being considered for protection of the Bay. LG shared that soon they will be audience to several vendors wishing to sell the latest in oil removal technology. As we talked I suggest that they visit Louisiana, and other impacted areas so that they can develop a context for being able to assess the technology presentations. In order to observe, and report any place or wildlife impacted by the oil from the spill, the reserve is currently deploying a volunteer surveillance effort constituted by its members.

We next traveled to the University of Southern Mississippi to visit with Dr. Robert Shipp, head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama; additionally, he has served 14 years on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and is currently serving as its chairman. Dr. Shipp was also recently appointed the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board by Gov. Bob Riley. He has also overseen and participated in years of research on red snapper off the Alabama Gulf Coast. In a recent on-line article for which Dr. Shipp was interviewed, he had this to say:

“The thing that’s scary is the habitat. If you destroy the habitat, then they won’t be able to snap back. That’s what we’re worried about over the long term – destruction of habitat. If we lose a year class of snapper, it’s bad, but next year we’ll have another year class. The same is true for blue crabs and mahi mahi. If the sargassum or grass beds or oyster reefs are destroyed, then we have a really, really bad long-term problem.

Shipp thinks the focus now is to do whatever we can to save the habitat and not worry too much about what’s going on with individual species. “Sargassum is such an important habitat that is being overlooked,” he said. “I don’t know how one can go out and protect it, but sargassum is every bit as important as grass beds and marshes.”

Almost all the highly migratory species – mahi mahi, billfish, tunas – are dependent on the floating beds of sargassum, which serves as a nursery area for those species. Along with the majority of marine scientists, Shipp thinks it’s a bad idea to apply dispersants to the spill.

“We don’t want the oil down in the water column or on the bottom where it gets into the sediments and starts traveling through the food chain,” he said. “There are so many unknowns regarding the composition of dispersants. Not only that, when the oil is on the surface, some of it evaporates. Some of the toxic components go off into the atmosphere. That’s not going to happen if it’s under water."

In Dr. Shipp's comments he mentions Sargassum. It is not uncommon for pieces to break away from floating collections of the material, and become displaced on beaches. What is uncommon, is having Sargassum covered with oil, rendering it useless to fulfill its role of providing nourishment and protective cover for maturing species (see examples taken today of normal and oiled Sargassum).

Clearly whatever is being used to chemically disperse the oil and/or to mechanically keep it off the beach is not working effectively. Below are several pictures I took today at Orange Beach and Predido Pass. The pictures on the beach are, of course Orange Beach, and the others were taken at the pass, where construction crews are building a steel barrier that they hope will keep the oil out -- unfortunately, oil has already seeped pass the incomplete barrier, and is soiling the booms and absorbent material that has been placed in the water near the board walk.

As Tim and I approached the beach, I did not know what to expect. I assumed we would have to look pretty hard to find "tar balls," or "pancakes," terms used to describe oil deposits floating or stationary, based on the size and configuration of the oily mass. When we crested the dune, what I noticed first were the size of the waves - 6 to 8 feet. The strength with which they struck the beach was impressive -- the sound deafening. At first, I didn't notice the blobs of goo in the sand -- I thought that surely all this could not be oil, alas, I was incorrect -- it was oil. A lot of oil. Scatter across the beach, and also beneath the sand in places. Tim said that this wasn't as bad as it had been over the past couple of days -- which made me wonder, "if this isn't bad, what would a bad deposit of oil on the beach look like."

In the above pictures you see: me standing over a "pancake" of oil that has washed ashore, in the middle picture, one can clearly see the striated lines left in the sand by oily sheen, and finally in the last picture, the oil has soaked the once white absorbent material. The first two images were taken at Orange Beach, the third near Perdido Pass. In several places along the beach, staging areas were being built; porta potties had been delivered, shelters were rising, and miles of boom lay neatly packaged...in plastic. Ironic.

As Tim and I rode around southern Alabama, we had time to talk, and get to know each other. Tim, a native of Alabama, has lived here just about all his life, his wife is from Alabama -- and his daughter is in college at Alabama. He has a teenage soon with whom he loves to go fishing. Standing at the railing in Perdido Pass, looking out over the water, I could not help but wonder what must have been going through his mind...what was he hoping for...praying for.

Then, it dawned on my -- he was probably thinking, hoping, and praying for the same things I did a few days ago, when I rode out to Bay Jimmy in Southern Louisiana, and observed miles of marsh soiled with oil and dying along the coast of Louisiana, my home state. It is interesting, Tim and I are of an age that we would not likely have played as friends growing up; we would have lived in different parts of the city, had we lived in the same city (either in Louisiana or Alabama). Me black, he white -- there wouldn't have been a lot of experiences that we would have shared growing up -- at least that is what one would think, at first glance...on the surface. Our deep affection for our home states, and some of the traditions and rites of passage, we share -- like fishing, football, and love of the outdoors are some aspects of us that can not be seen. In the wake of great challenge some times people come to realize a common humanity. We come to realize that there are some ties that bind -- and some of those ties are made of a common thread. The sooner we realize that the better we'll be able to take on what is about to come -- this, as bad as it is, is just the beginning.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Silence is Golden

I awoke at about 8am fully expecting that we would not be able to get on the water today. The weather system from yesterday was still in the area, fingers of the tropical storm reached deep into bayou country causing low menacing clouds to cover the waterways. The humidity is high, and the mood is low – thus the day begins.

As I answer a few early morning emails and text messages, the smell of coffee wafts through the condo, . The first cup is the best. On the back deck overlooking the boat slips and canal that runs like a street between the houses, I watch the early morning sun and the stirring of life in the marina.

Half way through my first cup, someone’s phone rings – it is a captain agreeing to take us out. He assures us that the water, and consequently the ride will be rough…but that if we want to go, he is available. We all agree we should take advantage of the opportunity. A quick shower, a few granola bars, and off we go to Myrtle Grove Marina; which, in addition to being a marina, seems to be a staging place for trips to where the heavy oil is located.

As we arrive there are several aspects of this place that strike me. The security guard, and gate posted up front bar entrance to any who are not badged and official. Around the side of the gate, to the right, non-official vehicles are able to park and carry on the business of the day. In the common area, available to both badged and non-badged personnel, there is a convenience store selling water, snacks and bait. There is a little porch in front of the store there serves as a sitting area – there, I find several men, sitting, smoking, talking on the phone and to each other. At first, I stay with my companions, but soon , as is my custom, I venture out to meet a few of the fellows sitting, waiting. I am drawn to two men, and introduce myself, and they do the same. Firm handshakes and amiable smiles were offered and accepted. One of the men is from Las Vegas – he is in town specifically to work with BP and the oil spill…he was not terribly talkative, neither was he unfriendly – just leery. As the conversation slowly unfolds, Nevada get's up and leaves.

The other man introduces himself as Skipper – That's me and Skipper in the photo on the right. Skipper is from the Chitimacha Indian reservation in St. Mary Parish of Louisiana. There are 720 registered Chitimacha. The 2000 census reported a resident population of 409 persons living on the Chitimacha Indian Reservation. Of these, 285 were of solely Native American ancestry. Since coming to work on the oil disaster, Skipper has not been home in 36 days…BP is paying for a room where he lives while he works with them. Before coming to Myrtle Grove, Skipper worked as a fishing boat captain of a small vessel – work had been slow, so money from this job is appreciated. Skipper and I shot the breeze while I waited for the boat that was to take me out on the water….he was waiting to learn if he would have to work that day or not. The menacing clouds over head suggested that he, and others waiting around the sitting area would likely not have to work because of the rough seas…but no one seemed to be interested making a determination one way or the other, and the frustration was building among the men who were not working. Skipper tells that it is not uncommon to have to come out and wait, and wait with nothing to do. When I asked Skipper about this, he said he didn’t mind because he and the others were getting paid by the day…whether they worked or not. As we sat that there, already 3 hours into the work day, others were getting up and drifting toward their cars and heading away from the marina…”sneaking off” as Skipper described it --- which is what he intended to do himself after a few more minutes.

Eventually, our captain arrived, and we were able to get on the water – it looked like we would be soaked with rain, but the weather held, and we got to see some of the impacted areas. Here I need to clarify something I shared with you earlier. Yesterday, I reported that the oil in Louisiana was a mile or so off the coast of Venice and southern Louisiana. The reality is that some of the oil has made it into the marshes and is effecting the habitats and wildlife that is there. Oil making it inshore is well dispersed, it is not the long undulating ribbons as it is off-shore, rather, it seems to appear episodically, makeing it so difficult to attack -- look at the pictures of the marsh. As impacted and oiled as this salt grass is, we saw not one sign of oil in the water. What is interesting is that the optics of the spill on the grass pictured here are probably better than the actual situation -- because of the relatively high water level (because of the storm and rain from the previous day) -- the bulk of the oil is below the water-line, out of our field of vision.

In spite of my knowing about the incursion of the oil into the marsh of Bay Jimmy and Bay Batiste, the sight of the oil, for the first time, was devastating. My first thought was that it is not that bad -- just a little brown around the bottom of the salt grass in the marsh. However, as we got closer to the marsh, I could see that the oil had soaked the stalks, and was killing the grass. I put a blue latex glove on and reached in the marshy grass of the bayou, and pulled some of the brown tar-like gooey substance from the grass. The goo had the feel and consistency of tar, but not quite as viscous. And while there was a petroleum smell to the goo, it was not as over powering as some have reported in the wide slicks off-shore. Nonetheless, there was an odor that -- clearly different from the musty, salty smell of the marsh I encountered on the way to the effected areas.

Our captain, Captain Mike Daigle from Lafitte, was a patient person willing to take us wherever we wanted to go. He took us into some of the effected areas even though his boat would be oiled, and would take great effort to be clean again. He traveled the waters of the Louisiana bayous as if he had lived there his entire life and knew the waterways the way you and I know streets in our neighborhood -- and so, he does. Swerving this way, then that -- talking the whole time, with stories of lost marsh to Katrina, and abandoned houses, and lost traditions.

As we made out way back to the Myrtle Grove marina, we rode mostly in silence. We passed ship wrecks and abandoned fishing camps, left deserted in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. we passed birds and dolphin, crabs and shrimp. We passes multi-million dollar homes sitting on quarter acre lots overlooking the water with driveways and boat docks.
Arriving back on shore, I gathered my things and started my drive to Gulfport. As left the marina area, there was a group of young black men sitting together in a few parked cars near the exit/entrance. I started to drive past, and then stopped, got out of the car and went to try and engage them in conversation. My assumption being that they would not want to talk for fear I was a reporter looking for a scoop on BP -- I was right. At least, at first. As I explained what I was up to and who I was, and where I was from...there was a spark...the beginning of a connection that I sought to fan into something more robust. I wanted to know if black people were getting opportunities to work as easily as whites, or if Black people were being relegated to the menial jobs that characterize every division of labor. I was feed the party line, and the young men reported that everyone was being given work equally according to their ability. They wanted to know why I wanted to take their picture, and what I was going to say about them in my blog -- I told them that I would say that I met some young men who were trying to better their condition...some young men who cared about their community and was doing what they could to earn a living and make a difference...and so, I have.

As I pulled out of the marina, I stopped to take a picture of the gated entrance (see above) to the BP staging area. I was informed that pictures were not allowed...and a guard came up to me and asked for my id and the purpose of my visit. The guard was friendly enough, but no-nonsense...I was very cooperative, and shared that I am from Baton Rouge originally and that this was more than a news story for me, that for me, this was personal. As we talk the guard covered his/her name tag (yes, I know the difference between boys and girls, but I want to protect the identity of the guard) -- he/she told me that there was more to be said but that he/she could not because, as with the young men described above, talk had to be minimized because "they" were watching. It seems that in this case silence truly is golden.

Monday, June 28, 2010

My Journey to Venice, Louisiana

I started on my journey to Venice, Louisiana at 9am (EST) on the morning of June 28, 2010. It was a beautiful, if warm, and sunny morning. I had packed the night before, so all that remained was to bid adieu to my loving wife and kids and hit the open highway. I had been anticipating this trip from some time -- I was interested to search for what was true and what had been embellished; what was accurate, and what has been slanted to meet certain agendas.

Additionaly, I wanted to see how folks were coping with the impending incursion of oil into their lives and livelihoods; into their physical and psychological spaces. On one of my only stops on the way to Venice, I bought a newspaper (Montgomery Advertiser, Montgomery, Alabama) at a service station. The front page of the paper had, among its headlines, this: " Psychological toll mounts from oil spill." The article talked about the plight one shrimper, Ricky Robin, trying desperately to cope with in the aftermath of Katrina, and the still unfolding Gulf oil disaster. Robin, the article infers, is typical of some of the toughest fishers and shrimpers in the gulf -- people who have made a living, and crafted lives out of communing with the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and who rarely seek the assistance of mental health professionals.

My journey down to Venice was not an easy one, however, it pales in comparison to the challenges now facing many members of the coastal communities along the Gulf. But let me pause for just a moment to tell you about my trip to Venice, which is in some ways illustrative of the parable of today's blog. I drove for 550 miles to get to Venice, from Atlanta -- at times it rained so hard that the traffic was reduced to a crawl. After arriving in southern Louisiana, my trusted GPS instructed me to a back road, near a levee that contained the Mississippi River. The weather conditions had deteriorated, and the river was angry, swells and currents rose and fell rapidly, lightening flashed and thunder clapped all around the levee. I was delivered to a ferry boat location -- and as if on queue, upon my arrival there sat the vessel of opportunity (sorry I couldn't resist) -- pitching and tossing as I droves unsteadily aboard. I parkerd the car and called my wife of 11 years, and promised my undying love to her and the kids...and prayed I would make it across safely. The picture above is of the ferryman, and, I, with no coins in my pockets, worried that perhaps he would carry me only so far, and dispose of me, with the rest, at the bottom of the river.

Alas, we made it across and I was able to continue my journey to the coast...no sooner had I re-engaged my the GPS did I realize that not only was I on the wrong side of the river but also that I would have to cross the river again...and there were no bridges, which meant that it would have to be a ferry...again. Fortunately, the wind had subsided, and the river was less angry than before -- the crossing went off without a hitch.

I take the time to share this story with you because I imagine that getting to the truth of what is going on with this oil spill will require just as much perseverance.

When I finally arrived, it was nearly 6 pm (CST) -- I was tired and hungry. My roommates, other NWF professionals and I had a quick bite to eat and went to visit 25 year boat captain, Mike Frenette, pictured to the left with yours truly. Talking to Mike was, at first tense, as we felt each other out, and then relaxed as we found our rhythm, and a shared sense of outrage about the disaster. As a charter boat captian, Mike is not a commercial fisherman, like Robin in the earlier story I related to you. Mike is s professional fisherman who hires out his fish finding and catching expertise to those interested in fishing adventures. He is one of the first, if not there first charter boat captains in Venice. He and his lovely wife welcomed us in this home and we talked about nearly an hour about the challenges that charter boat captains are facing in the wake of the oil disaster.

As Mike put it -- in Katrina, the fishermen lost the infrastructure to carry on their work. But, he continues, infrastructure can was was rebuilt. In this case, the oil spill is preventing fishermen from getting to the "resource" (fish, shrimp, crabs oyster, etc) -- what is more, the resource is being destroyed at an alarming rate, and it is not certain when, or if in the foreseeable future, fishermen will be able to return to their livelihood. Mike told me that the boats have not gone out (for fishing) since the disaster occur -- this is day 70 of the disaster! Mike is angry, frustrated and determined to make a difference, he has testified before congress, and is an articulate spokesperson for why it is important to preserve one of the disappearing acts of our society.

While there is currently no visible oil in Venice (see the map below) , about a mile off the coast, oil sheen has been seen. In some of the bays and canals around the Venice area, oil is being found in increasing quantity. Oil is making it way into the marches of Louisiana -- the marshes serve as a nursery to many species of the Gulf. Many species of mammal, fish, reptiles and birds have habitats in the marsh-lands of the gulf , which suggest that not just this generation of wildlife will be impacted, but future generations of wildlife will be impacted as well.

Finally, people down here are tired of the media circus -- which once filled a pavilion outside Crawgators', one of the local eateries, and now has slowed to a trickle -- the people want action...they want to be understood...they want people to make the journey to Venice, in their own way, for their own reasons -- no matter how twisty or turny it is, no matter how many ferrymen one has to pay to get to the reality of the unfolding disaster in the Gulf.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


Just before Memorial Day, I drove down to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to visit with representatives from the Mississippi Wildlife Federation. The trip was to get a feel for how that state was planning on responding to the BP oil spill. At the time, there had not been any incursion of oil on the beaches or barrier islands of Mississippi, and people were generally upset that alarms were being sounded about the impending disaster, which was driving tourist away and keeping the beaches empty.

Just three days after my initial visit, I drove back through Pass Christian with my family, to see if anything had changed. My kids were very happy to see the beach -- as soon as the door opened they ran across the white sand beach, headed straight for the water. As we approached the water, we notice that there were four rubber-suit wearing beach walkers (this is the opening picture of this blog), whose both attire and demeanor were out of place on a sandy coastal beach. As the boys start to enter the water, we were approached and it was suggested that we (parents) might NOT want our kids to get in the water because tar balls had been found earlier that day in the vicinity. The rubber-suited ones offered that the beaches in Gulfport might be better, and the water more to our liking.

As we mounted the crest-fallen young lads back in the the mini-van, and drove away, we encountered another group of rubber-suited beach walkers a few yards down the road. Interested, I stopped to ask who these people were, and what was their purpose. First, I identified myself as a representative from the National Wildlife Federation, and that my interests were more than casual, but not official. The rubber-suited folks in this group were a little different from those in the first group. This group was composed of men with tattoos and thick muscled arms -- white men with darken skin from being exposure to long hours in the sun. They were polite, but firm when asking if they could help me. The conversation was brief, and the direction was the same as before; again, I was assured that the beached in Gulfport would be better for us than those in Pass Christian.
So, tomorrow, June 28th, I head back to the Coast. Nearly 30 days after my first trip -- and hundreds of thousands of gallon of oil later. I am headed down to see for myself what is happening in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. I will visit each state, and talk with people who are working on the front line, and with people whose lives are being impacted by the disaster. No, I suppose, I will not have the same access as the big networks, perhaps not the small ones either -- but I will have something they don't -- Freedom. I don't have an audience profile to speak to, no sponsors to please, no editorial board to think about. I can just call it like I see it.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I want you all to know that I work for the National Wildlife Federation. And that it is for my job that I am making this trip -- with information I am able to gather while visiting the gulf, we will be able to make more informed decision about how best to enhance efforts to identify, rescue, and rehabilitate wildlife impacted by the oil. I say this not as an apology -- I like my job very much -- I say it so that you know that while I work for NWF -- the views expressed in this blog, as I have said elsewhere, are my own, and are not meant to infer, imply or impugn any intent or policy for or of NWF in any of my ramblings or rantings -- and there is likely to be plenty of both. One other thing you should know is that I am Louisiana, I was born and raised there -- I am very upset that my state and her oft-time overly patient populous are having to overcome yet another major, lifestyle altering challenge.
I hope you will join me on my journey -- I will try to stick with just the facts as I know them -- post some pictures and, when I can, some video so as to not bore you with my monotonous prose. I can be a little long winded, so I apologize up front for that -- but I hope that as you read each post, an image will emerge of what it is really like in the gulf...what people are really feeling, what they are thinking. To be sure one can not capture it all in a week-long visit, and certainly not this one -- but perhaps, enough will be captured to give you a sense of what is going on. I am anxious to get out there, and at the same time afraid of what I will find. Anticipation.