Sunday, June 13, 2010

Anxiety spreads along the Gulf

Anxiety spreads along the Gulf

Coast grapples with uncertainty over oil spill

AP photo
Charter boat captain Dave Marino pilots his boat across Barataria Bay off the coast of Louisiana. Marino has seen a deep decline in business as fishing areas have been closed since the oil spill.
By Adam Geller The Associated Press
Published: Sunday, June 13, 2010 at 3:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 9:25 p.m.
ALONG THE GULF COAST | It's barely 5 a.m., and last night's sliver of moon still hangs in a charcoal sky as Dave Marino eases the 24-foot bayboat from the dock and into the flat, dark waters of the canal leading toward the Gulf of Mexico.

The air hangs thick with the vapors of the bayou, but for now it's cool — the ideal start for what should be a perfect day in the life of a fishing guide: chasing speckled trout in the morning, redfish in the afternoon.
“I'm 41 years old, and that's the way it's always been,” said Marino, a lifelong fisherman who started his own charter business in Myrtle Grove, La., to relieve the stress of his primary job, fighting fires.
This morning, though, there'll be no escaping reality. The waters at the end of the canal are off limits to fishing. Marino's usual charter customers have canceled or stopped calling. Today, he is motoring out in search of oil.
With every sunrise, the sheen rippling from BP PLC's gaping Deep-
water Horizon wellhead drifts closer to Marino's corner of paradise. And the slick is close behind.
“My concern is that it's going to tip the balance to where it's too much to overcome,” Marino said. One hand on the wheel, he points to the baitfish called pogies jumping from the water, and to the grassy shallows where redfish longer than a man's arm feast on shrimp. “What happens when you tip the point to where there's more death than life?” 

The question is beyond any simple answer. But the dread and uncertainty embedded in Marino's query hang in the air all along the coast, where The Associated Press traveled four Gulf states more than seven weeks after the BP-operated rig exploded, killing 11 men and starting the spill. The three-day trip traced the arc of the jigsaw coastline from Louisiana bayous to Florida beach enclaves.
Across nearly 500 miles, you hear the testimony of people whose lives are intertwined with the Gulf's ecology and economy, transfixed by its allure and frightened by its apparent limitations. Not all agree on who's to blame, or even if blame should be cast.
But you can be sure of at least one thing. Even in places that have seen no sign of oil, the spill is commanding attention in a way few other events can. It is redefining life on the Gulf, upending routines and reframing expectations.
Lives changed
By 6 a.m., we've passed a raft of commercial fishing boats in the canal, their crews loading a fresh supply of oil containment boom, and entered the broad expanses of Barataria Bay. To the unaccustomed eye, it is a marvel of nature unspoiled, except for the oil platforms and pumps dotting the horizon. A porpoise vaults from the water. On tiny Queen Bess Island — circled in boom — hundreds of pelicans, ibises and terns keen from the mangroves. But Marino wants us to study the water.
“This is all an oil sheen that you're in,” he says.
Soon, it becomes easier to see. When a breeze blows over open water, it's supposed to ripple. But the sheen acts like a blanket, holding the water flat. Atop heavy sheen, the horseflies that have been nipping at our legs depart, and most of the dragonflies vanish. Marino, who often watches birds hunt for clues to where the fish are, points out how few gulls and egrets are in the water.

Farther out, the smell kicks in, slightly sweet, like tar, but stronger. Then, just south of Bay Jimmy, we find what we've been looking for. A slick roughly the size of a school bus lies thick across the water like pancake batter, the color of chocolate fondue. There's no boom in sight and no cleanup crews. In the middle of the spill floats a lump roughly the size of a serving platter — a dead Kemp's Ridley sea turtle.
Marino calls the GPS coordinates into the Plaquemines Parish emergency operations center.
“Another 45 days, it's going to be on top of all of us, he says, returning to the dock. Still, he's not ready to let go.
“You know what I want? I want you come to come back in a couple of years when we're fishing again and let me take you fishing and catch a big gigantic redfish,” he says. “I just wish I had the certainty that would be soon.”
Back on the road, we head up U.S. 90 about 16 miles to the narrow neck of land running between immense Lake Pontchartrain and smaller sibling Lake St. Catherine. Both are connected to the Gulf and lined with homes on stilts.
Just before the Fort Pike Bridge, a bar called Big Al's welcomes passers-by with a promise of free boiled crabs on Wednesdays. Ask, though, and you'll hear they've replaced some of the crabs with crawfish because of the fishing restrictions. Behind the bar, that's only the start of Jodi Jackson's worries.
Her husband, Kevin, is a crabber. They were counting on the proceeds from this year's catch to finish building a home to replace the one stolen by Hurricane Katrina. But with boats crowding into limited waters, his catch is down by 80 percent. Fumes she blames on the oil have sent her to the hospital for nausea. She worries most, though about the man she's loved since she was 14.
“We've been married 30 years and I've never seen him like this. He can't even watch the news. It gives him panic attacks,” Jackson says.
Jackson heads to the end of the bar to refill a customer's beer. And, with the clock nearing 5 p.m., another state — Mississippi — beckons.

At Bay St. Louis, the spill is on Ralph Brou's mind as he watches granddaughter Leah Elliott, 4, ride her bike around the playground behind city hall. Brou moved here 29 years ago from New Orleans, but now he wonders how much of this will be passed along to Leah.
“We haven't told her anything” about the spill, he says. It'll probably stay that way unless the beach is closed to swimming and an explanation becomes impossible to avoid.
A clock tower chimes.
“OK, baby. It's time to go,” Brou calls to Leah. He scoops her up and lowers her through the window of his pickup, puts her bicycle in the back, and drives off.
Mixed feelings
It's Tuesday, seven weeks to the day since the Deepwater Horizon went up in flames. The morning dawns bright and hot over the Mississippi Coast.
Halfway down the West Side Pier in Gulfport, Jay Bates is celebrating his first morning home after weeks on the road installing water meters, casting a pair of lines for flounder. Twenty years ago, he came from southwest Indiana's farmland to help a friend move and ended up falling in love with a woman and the shoreline.
Now, he ponders the spill. On one hand, he says, he dreads the damage it could do. On the other, there's a lot to be said for oil.
“I can't say the oil rigs are a bad thing. What would we do without oil? And that makes some of the best fishing out there. Big fish love hanging around those rigs,” he says.
A few minutes later, one of Bates' rods bows and he reels in a big flat fish. “Me and my dog Bubba, we're fixing to have flounder tonight,” he says.
We drive on to Biloxi and over the bridge to Ocean Springs. Down a street shaded by live oaks, Genie Martz is staffing the desk at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, which showcases the work of a man whose eccentricities were matched only by his love for the environment and whimsical way he captured its wildlife.

Anderson, who died in 1965, filled the walls of the community center next door with swooping pelicans, ascending herons and leaping porpoises. Today, the museum houses the little rowboat he used to venture the 10 miles out to Horn Island, where he loved to draw and paint. Its beaches are now reportedly the landing site of tarballs.
If Anderson was still alive, would he be able to turn the other cheek?
Anderson “had a thing about birds, and when he was drawing them I believe he really felt he was one,” Martz says. “He'd be really devastated.”
Just past noon, Martz is off to meet her sister for lunch. We pull in to the BP station on U.S. 98 to top the tank. (“I know that BP's at fault and they aren't handling it right,” says Anna Breal, who's filling her Honda CRV at the adjoining pump. “But what I can do? I need gas.”)
Farther east, we turn down Highway 188 to Bayou La Batre, “Seafood Capital of Alabama.”
Processing plants and fishing boats all seem idled. But in front of Bayside Oyster Co., six high school and college students are pouring oyster shells into burlap coffee bags. The plant is closed, its 30 workers sent home, but owner Wayne Eldridge is adept at finding other opportunities. The bagged shells will be dumped in the bay to build breakwaters, as part of a contract with the Nature Conservancy. Eldridge's construction company has also been hired by state and local officials and BP to deploy boom and trained workers to handle hazardous materials. Before the spill, he employed 50. Last week, thanks to the cleanup, he was supervising 700.
Still, Bayou La Batre could run dry, he says.
“The question is how long before you can go back fishing?” Eldridge asks. “The answer is, how long before they can stop the leak? And then, what's the environmental damage?”
Anger against BP
Another Gulf sunrise. John Smylka was up at 4:30 a.m. to run. Now, at 6, he's striding the beach at Gulf Shores, Ala., eyes cast downward, holding a clipboard in one hand and a GPS in the other, fulfilling his “civic responsibility” as part of a volunteer corps searching for oil on beaches. So far, he's found nothing.

“You know we'll survive it (the spill), but it'll take a long time,” says Smylka, 63, a former University of Alabama criminal justice professor. “I just hope that we learn from it — that we're not infallible and that there's more to life than making money.”
Shortly after 8:30, we cross into Florida, and not long after, a roar fills the sky: the Navy's Blue Angels, flying practice maneuvers. Hundreds of Gulf visitors stand in the lot of the National Naval Aviation Museum, on the base outside Pensacola, marveling at what human beings can do when they command technology.
“You see things like this and you think, these guys can zoom through (the air) and they can't even fix an oil leak?” says Brent Chanley, who is visiting from Jasper, Ind.
In downtown Pensacola, trial lawyer Mike Papantonio knows exactly who to blame for the spill — and he's ready for blood.
Papantonio has made a career pursuing big corporations in court — for instance, his firm won a $283 million verdict against DuPont for pollution from a smelting plant. And now he's after BP.
He's paying for an airplane to fly over Pensacola Beach pulling a banner reading “Prosecute BP.” Sitting in his office, he points toward a statue of a Spartan warrior, drawing his sword to take on the Barbarians.
“I tell people that this is what we do all the time,” he says. “Should we be terrified that BP is in our backyard? No. We pull out our sword and go after them.”
Thirteen miles down the road, Charlie Knight also wields a blade. But his is a chainsaw.
“Pelican sale,” reads the roadside sandwich board fronting Knight's business, Palm Tiki Wood Sculpture. Knight carves many types of Gulf wildlife, but pelicans — hacked from cypress, standing about waist high — are his mainstay.
Now, he worries, the spill could drive away the tourists who buy most of them. That might not be the worst thing. Knight says he's been thinking of moving for years and this might be the catalyst he needs to leave the Gulf Coast.

Then again, maybe the spill will “be good for business. Pelicans are in the news once again, making headlines,” he says, just as a Chevy Suburban pulls in — with Louisiana tags, he notes, a hopeful sign. The pelican is the state bird there. In the end, it's no sale, but a man who just arrived in a Ford Explorer reaches for the price tag on a pelican.
The town of Seaside, and its neighboring community of Watercolor, retain what many more heavily developed stretches long ago set aside — a gentle relationship with the Gulf coastline. An hour before sunset, families speckle the beach, searching for crabs, building sandcastles.
“This is it. This is the best part of the day here,” sighs Joe McPherson, a retired research physicist. He and wife Vicki, smile at each other from matching striped folding chairs, savoring the sunset. For 10 years, they've been vacationing here from Plano, Texas.
“We keep telling ourselves, let's enjoy every single day,” Joe McPherson says. “Because, well, you never know.”

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