Gulf of Mexico Flyovers ~ August 8th & 9th, 2010

Flying with Bonny Schumaker from ‘On Wings of Care’ has been an eye opening experience. Bonny has been flying her souped up Cessna over these waters most days since the gusher broke loose in April. And with insights added by Samantha Whitcraft of Oceanic Defense, we were able to draw some pretty clear conclusions as to whether or not there is still oil out in the Gulf. And there most definitely is, and you can see it for yourself in this footage.

This disaster, which some experts estimate at 20 times the size of the Exxon Valdez, is not over. With the copious amount of Corexit sprayed under and over the Gulf waters, much of the oil has dispersed, sunk, or otherwise become hidden from view. But there is no mistaking the vast areas of rainbow sheen on the surface of the ocean, stretching in patches as far as the eye can see to the horizon. As we approached, we all hoped that we were looking at areas of no wind where the sea surface would appear like glass. But as we got closer, the multicolored sheen made it clear. We were looking at oil. Seeing it in person, your mind really can’t grasp how much oil you’re looking at. It is mind boggling.

Another confusing thing out there is the sargassum weed, which looks deceivingly like crude oil, or what they call ‘mousse’ when seen from the air. The weed collects in lines, and is the same orange color as weathered crude. And we saw both. Today a BP employee told me at breakfast that there are still tar balls washing up on the islands off Mississippi. “This stuff is going to keep coming to the surface for a long time”, he said. In the next breath, he said that yes, BP is scaling back operations and removing more equipment & personnel every day.

The Gulf disaster is like having cancer. When the doctor first tells you, you panic and you feel as though your life has been ripped apart. Everything goes into high gear as you scramble to deal with the monster. But over time, if you survive, it becomes a long term management issue. It’s less dramatic but nevertheless, still very much there. Just like the dispersed oil, the disaster lives below the surface now. Even in many of the residents, it’s not something they talk about anymore. How can we make sure that the Gulf region is not forgotten? Every day that I am here, I see more evidence of the pull back.

In many of the Gulf heroes who I’ve learned to love and respect, I sense a change. It’s harder to keep going without the impetus of immediate disaster. But they’re shifting into low gear and continuing on. Just as they did after Katrina, just as they’ll always do.

Grand Isle & Barataria Bay – What Have We Done?

Grand Isle. Barataria Bay. Port Fourchon. These are not just names on Google Earth to me anymore. Each one has a unique flavor, and they have a way of getting into your soul. The little fishing towns are dying. Shops still haven’t taken down their signs advertising crab and shrimp. I stopped by today in a souvenir shop, hoping that my purchase of a few t-shirts might ease some hardship. The owner said to me that if it weren’t for the workers & military on the island, she’d be out of business. Later, as I watched a huge black bus load up with military personnel, I thought about the government and BP ‘scaling back’ their operations. This woman’s livelihood will soon be gone as well. Many of the other businesses on Rt. 1 in Grand Isle are already gone. Only the hotels are still full – in fact it was impossible to get a room anywhere in the vicinity. For now. But as the cleanup workers and the military trickle out, I’m afraid so will the livelihoods of the rest of the fine folk of Grand Isle. I ask myself. What will become of them? Where will they go?

At the same time, I am taken aback by the incredible beauty of the place. I didn’t expect that. Driving out through Barataria Bay on a long ribbon of causeway, it seems that the marshes and wetlands stretch on forever. It has the feel of being out at sea, even though the actual coast is many miles away. It’s simply exquisite. It’s not a sweaty dirty swampy place – it’s pristinely beautiful. I can only imagine what a paradise this must have been before the Deepwater Horizon. And even with the environmental disaster that’s befallen this corner of our planet, people were still fishing and casting their nets in the marshes. It’s a mystery to me.

If you were to drive through with your windows closed (not hard in the 98 degree heat), you’d be craning your head to see the booms, the big ships, the waterways – it’s fascinating to see. But in many areas, the minute you open your car window, you are met with the putrid stench of death. It fills your nostrils. Today I actually started back to the car to get my respirator or at least a dust mask against the smell – it was sickening. But I decided to tough it out and walked the shoreline looking for what had died. I never found a thing. Later there were news reports that Grand Isle had suffered a fish kill the night before. In typical ‘Incident Command’ style, it was all cleaned up by morning. But they still haven’t figured out a way to hide that smell. And even now, almost twelve hours later, I can still smell it.

The beach road of Grand Isle is much like many other coastal towns in America. Quaint funky houses on stilts, backed by a low hill covered in sea grass, and on the other side, the ocean. How many times have we, as children climbed such a hill, and at the top of the rise, there it is, like magic – the ocean! But here it’s different. When you climb over the hill, you’re hit with a complete assault to your senses. It looks like Iraq. You come over the hill, and there it is – our own, self created hell. Huge trucks rumble by, compressing the sand and leaving their monstrous tracks. Bulldozers push piles of filthy sand into piles for removal. The young military have a look on their faces that is at the same time polite, yet also somewhat ashamed as they tell you ‘the rules’. This is what our dependence on oil has reduced us to, and may God forgive us. No photos, no words can accurately convey the shock I experienced today.

As you drive back towards the mainland, there’s a fantastic raised causeway over the marshes that comes down into Port Fourchon, the seaport known as “The Gulf’s Energy Connection”. The industrial complexes belonging to the big oil companies and the Port Commission spread out over the landscape like a cancer. It feels like they should absolutely not be there, but our hunger for cheap energy demands it. I came away with the deepest feeling I’ve ever had that we must cure our addiction to fossil fuel. It is a blight on our planet and everything about it is an assault – from the burning in my eyes to the ugliness of these huge complexes of steel and smoke spreading out over these beautiful green and blue marshes. We must find a way to stop this. I’ve said that before, but I’ve never truly meant it as much as I do today.

Despite the ugliness & destruction that I witnessed today, somehow through it I could see the America that our forefathers discovered. That pristine continent is clearly gone forever, but we must pull together and make the necessary changes to save at least a glimmer of its beauty for the future children of our ocean planet.