Walking the Beach

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

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment