The longtime residents of Perdido Beach are angry and frustrated; others just bury their heads in the sand and pray BP will go away. In Gulf shore sands stretching from Louisiana to Florida amphipods are hopping mad, isopods are flatly frustrated and mobile-home dragging hermit crabs are conspicuously absent this winter. They are just a few of the local folks that share theses beaches; make it what it is, and have become collateral damage in the war in the Gulf.
The normally tranquil beaches of the Gulf barrier islands are the kind of idyllic place where northerners flock by the thousands in winter. They have been coming here for generations – Sanderlings and Sandpipers from the Arctic, Turnstones from Maine, Plovers from Hudson Bay, Willets from the central grasslands – all have seen there seasonal beaches turned into a battle field; a mechanical minefield for those that work the tide-line for their very lives.
Perspective on the BP disaster has often been difficult to come by. The little feathered aviators that migrate to the Gulf each winter have one advantage over us – aerial perspective. To share their bird’s eye view I took to the Gulf skies. I spent three days criss-crossing the beaches and bayous of the Gulf with two of nonprofit SouthWings volunteer pilots, Tom Hutchings from Alabama and Lance Rydberg in Louisiana.
Last June 14th, from the Oval Office, President Obama declared a war, a war on the shore. He put Retired Admiral Thad Allen in-charge of military maneuvers and BP was sourced with securing troops, supplying hardware and engaging the enemy. They also had to pay for the war – at least the cash part anyway. Problem was the President had no clear battle plan. As left-leaning MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann would criticize, “I thought it was a great speech – if you had been on another planet the past 57 days.”
Maybe what was needed was just a flight above this planet, over the Gulf. After much digging I still can’t find any accurate estimate of the time the Commander and Chief spent assessing the disaster from the air, much less a visit to the origin, Macondo. The oil from the disaster covered as much as 68,000 square miles and oiled over 600 miles of America’s Gulf coast (est. 365 miles in Louisiana alone), one of the most biologically rich coastal and estuarian systems in the world. How can speeches from beaches have any real perspective? You have to get above it all.
Like our other two theaters of war this one has consequently become a protracted battle, with an enemy we are unprepared to confront, arrest, and with whom we have no exit strategy. This war is afflicted in the same manner as the other wars: makeshift planning, a knee-jerk reaction based on misinformation, blinded embedded journalism, a public first patriotic now paralyzed, and local politicians now running amuck. Reports from the front lines have consistently been polluted with as much lying, false-facts and cover-ups as oil. And after seven months and numerous proclamations of success the outcome remains sketchy, and there still seems to be no clear exit strategy. In pure military parlance the war on BP’s Deepwater Horizon Macondo well disaster is a ‘FUBAR.’
Like the oil, reports of mismanagement and mishandling continue to surface months later. Just this past week internal email exchanges were presented in an AP report, here aptly presented in a CBS article with the title, U.S. Surrenders Gulf Oil Leak Estimate E-Mails. The Administration was struggling in the most basic way to present its war effort,
“EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was “concerned about the level of certainty implied in the pie and cylinder charts.” Another e-mail noticed that a pie chart in a draft of the government’s report wasn’t actually round: “A pie chart pretty much has to round to 100,” NOAA spokeswoman Jennifer Austin wrote.”
Again perspective – On July 15th the pulsing heart of the enemy, Macondo, was stopped, and the BP PR machine and complicit embedded reporter corps told the nation, ‘mission accomplished.’ (Borrowing from the Bush lie aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003.) It would take nearly two more months (September 19th) for the US government to declare the beast dead. It’s now late November and from above the Gulf it still feels like the creature from the black lagoon lives.
Back in the sky…
Back in the sky with SouthWings pilot Tom Hutchings over the past several days we surveyed beaches from Louisiana along the barrier islands of the Gulf Coast to the Florida panhandle – a hundred mile stretch of extraordinary beauty. Sadly, the beauty is scarred by the ravages of war, impacted by the mechanical invasion. Not one single beach has been spared the tracks of ATVs, road-graders, sand-sifters or bigger. Some beaches, like those on Grand Isle I flew over with SouthWings pilot Lance Ryberg two days earlier, look like a six-lane interstate freeway under construction. Grand Isle’s beaches have had to bear the weight of heavy machinery and relentless scrapings for nearly the entire seven months of this war – they are exhausted, lifeless and depressingly grey.
From the tiny porthole Tom created for me, by removing the rear left hatch, I can peer out between the Cessna 182’s tail and wheel to see an unobstructed view of once pristine beaches invaded by orange and red machines. Even from this height they appear grossly large and out of place, dwarfing their tiny troops in white clean up suits, fluorescent lime vests and armed with pooper-scooper rakes.
The clean up ‘operation hide-n-seek’ varies beach to beach. From the air you get a clear cross-section of the misguided efforts. Where tar balls are thought to be just below the surface sand-rakers are employed. They work like harvesters reaping wheat. Side-by-side they run the beach dragging tines a foot and a half deep, what comes up is sifted, sorted and bagged for disposal in approved inland landfills. Where the sub-sand oil and tar are more persistent bulldozers are given the job. They tilt their blades into the sand and scrape, literally peeling a layer of the beach away. On heavily oiled beaches like the Gulf exposed sides of Grand Isle, the Grand Terres, and the Chandeluers, sand cleaning plants were brought in to effectively steam clean the sand and then re-deposit it on the beach. The problem? On populated beaches like Grand Isle the off-gassing has made residence sick and pets began mysteriously dying.
BP clean up crews were everywhere we flew, and that’s problematic, on a couple fronts. First, the illusion of people working suggest progress, yet the real danger may be invisible and beyond the reach of men and machines – lingering environmental toxins. The illusion washes the disaster and puts the publics mind at rest (like not seeing caskets of the dead returning home.) The second is the employing the military mindset and approach. Like the wars that drag endlessly in the sands half a world away, this war has at times assumed a ‘take-n-prisoners’ strategy – the Gulf environment continues to pay a heavy price.
In this Gulf war money seems the only difference. BP is itching to cut its losses and get back to full-throttle profit-making, something they excel at. In 2009, for example, they made more money, cash, above and beyond assets, than any company in the world, a mind-aching $16 billion dollars. I’m not anti-making money or anti-corporate, I do have issue with procuring profits at the suspension of all ethics and safety to humans and planet. That has been the operating standard for BP in its rise to planet Earth’s wealthiest corporation. (Consider this – “in 2005, an explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City killed 15 workers and resulted in $21 million in fines. A year later, BP had a 212,000-gallon spill in Alaska’s North Slope—the worst there to date—that earned another $20 million in fines. Last year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration charged BP America with 709 safety violations at its Texas City facility. This led to $50 million more in fines—an OSHA record. (ExxonMobil, which has spent millions denying climate change exists, has had fewer than three dozen citations at its three refineries since 2007.” And that BP total doesn’t include 11 dead at Macondo on April 20th. An interesting look at those details and more is presented in the October 2010 issue of Outside Magazine, in an article entitled Sleeping with the Enemy by assistant editor Abe Streep.)
The Well Site
Out at the Macondo well site it did look as though dispersants had been used with deadly effectiveness, things were clean and quiet as a graveyard. Only two rigs floated eerily as we approached. My emotions were lost. I had only been here through someone else’s lens. I was trying to construct my emotional landscape from Tom’s. I listened to his voice crackle over the plane’s headset – he had not been out here since August 10th. Tom began describing to me the scene seven months earlier. He was the first and one of the only private pilots to fly out here – compelled to come – that’s what makes him a great SouthWings pilot, he emotionally and intellectually embodies the nonprofit’s mantra, “Conservation through Aviation.”
“Ya know that picture of the dolphins in oil I showed you back in the office?” he asked, continuing with the understanding that he knew I couldn’t have forgotten, “we were about here.” Here was in plain view of the two rigs now off our nose. The “we” Tom was referring to was himself and photographer John Wathen. The photo he was referring to is one of those every photographer hates, but imagines taking. The kind of photo that etches into your conscious. The familiar shape of bottle-nosed ‘flippers’ porpoising up out of the surface, but this is a sea of coppery crude, and every dolphin wake a black pool. The image is like one from some sci-fi apocalypse. War does that – strips reality, baring a naked truth we rather not see.
In a pub last week I was told there was a deadline for withdrawal, “December 31st they are pulling out, its over.” I’m not confident. I don’t think BP CEO Robert Dudley, the contract crews, shrimpers, local Perdido Beach residents or anyone else will be toasting the bubbly and singing au lang syne to this mess.
Berm Production Cash
Perhaps more deadly than both the oil and dispersants BP unleashed on the Gulf Coast is its cash . The world south of I-10 has always be a confusing corruption of backwater and backroom dealings. The beaches and bayous now have spill-justified projects sucking up tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. Most of these are questionable at best, a few, larger ones, are pure lunacy. We fly over the grandest of them all – sand berms to bridge the barrier islands.
It’s the audacity of humans to think they can play creator with the coastline that truly stuns me as we fly mile after mile. What is happening to the barrier islands of the Gulf Coast is on a scale I can only measure against hillside transformations in Madagascar, forest clear-cuts in British Columbia, Canada and tropical rainforest conversions to palm oil plantations in Borneo. Those are arguably all third-world countries when it comes to natural resources.
Staring out my little Cessna hole I continued to photograph, but could feel the wind rushing over my smile. This is where the quote springs in endless repetition, “Are these guys out of their fucking minds”, simultaneously rhetorical question and exasperated statement. A grade-schooler with any basic beach time could tell you these multi-million dollar sandcastle motes are doomed for destruction come the first good wave surge – and it will come. Over the past half decade alone this coast, in the very places these state governments are wasting precious financial resources, has been assaulted by over 60 hurricanes and dozens of major named tropical storms, including the infamous power of a Katrina.
I have photographed the berms in various places from the ground or water, but it’s up here in the air that their engineering folly become crystal clear. From a shorebird’s perspective the swirl of currents, the spinning of eddies and the rip of returning waves illustrates the Gulf’s resistance to man’s meddlings.
That’s the purpose of SouthWings and the reasons pilots like Tom Hutchings (and Lance Rydberg my pilot in New Orleans) donate and dedicate time to get folks like me in the air. It’s a whole different perspective. A little (aerial) distance sharpens ones focus. At least for some. Lord only knows if Governors Bobby Jindal (LA) , Bob Riley (AL), Haley Barbour (MS), Charlie Crist (FL) have all flown over the Gulf coast. Maybe what’s been missing is the experience. They need to climb into the back of Tom’s Cessna with the hatch off, sit cross-legged for four hours and stare out at the stupidity of their actions juxtaposed on the awing beauty of the Gulf. I don’t know, maybe that’s a frightening thought. Not the cramp that sets in your thighs, or stiffens your lower back. Maybe the stupidity would look too much like looking in the mirror.
Along the barriers islands from Dauphin Island in Alabama to the Grand Terres in Louisiana there are at least a half dozen major berm-building projects in the works and countless small actions. Ostensibly they are to protect the coast from oil – but the oil has been dispersed and berms can’t halt Corexit poisoned waters. So what’s the real point?
Maybe the governors do know more than their critics. Maybe they know there will be more spills. Bigger and worse. After all there have always been spills, decades of stories recount oily summer swimming and finding giant crystallized tar balls. Heck, just flying back from the Macondo site we spotted the sheen of an iridescent slick pouring out for miles across the Gulf. These happen constantly out here beyond the efforts of watchdog groups and un-embedded journalists.
I can’t describe my dumb-foundedness at these projects – in this case pictures are worth a thousand (at least) words – so thumb through the below images:
Does no one understand the most fundamental properties of hydrology and wave movement?
But then this isn’t really about berms and protection from storms of oil or weather. This is about money. Millions and millions of dollars. Nobody making these decisions actually thinks these berms will work – that’s not the issue – that’s what is so hard to wrap your head around. The point is people, a handful of contractors and their corporate owners/investors, powerful people just off the radar, are making those millions. Those people contribute. Those people insure re-elections. BP’s cash is paying for this. It’s the greatest campaign contribution scam of all time. And legal.
Lessons of War?
Maybe what we should be learning from all this is we are learning nothing that will alter the future – until we are willing to alter the way we live on Earth. The single most honest assessment on the demand for (and supply of) fossil fuels comes from the man at the heart of the real war room, BP CEO Robert Dudley himself. In a speech October 25, 2010 he said,
“By 2030, it is estimated that the world could be consuming as much as 40 percent more energy than today, thanks largely to growth and urbanization in the emerging markets. This will require investments of $25 to $30 trillion — more than $1 trillion per year for the next 20 years.
The deep waters are becoming an increasingly important source of energy to fuel the global economy. They account for around 7 percent of total oil supplies now, growing to a projected 9 percent in 2020.”
“Deep waters” we still no virtually nothing about ecologically and even less about protecting the oceans from disasters of the kind BP was responsible for on April 20th.
Back in the air we fly over more battlefronts. The troops are dwindling. Where once there were dozens now one baby blue port-a-potty stands and a half-dozen workers combing the sands for errant tar ball (most thumbnail-size at best), where weeks ago there were battalions. BP’s war room has already set the date for withdrawal. But like all war-torn areas it will be left to the locals, to return, rebuild, renew. And like all wars collateral damage will be high and the danger of unexploded ordinances (toxins) remains threatening. I don’t know how long it takes for beaches so thoroughly ravaged by this kind of assault to revive – for the amphipods and hermits to return. For the Plovers and Willets to feel it’s safe. No one knows. No one has witnessed a disaster of this scale. Unfortunately it may be years before we know, the beaches are still battlefronts, the war wages on.
All photos copyright Gerry Ellis/Minden Pictures , and created with support from SouthWings and National Audubon Society. With special thanks to two remarkable pilots Tom Hutchings and Lance Rydberg.
 Nov 2, 1010: USA Today: The London-based company said it returned to profit for the first time since the April spill, though net income of $1.79 billion was still well below a year-earlier profit of $5.3 billion because of the extra charge.
 Proponents of berms will argue the structures will also protect the coast from storms and hurricanes, and offer much-needed erosion relief. Pilots like Tom and Lance who have been watching these sand barriers form, reshape and disappear for decades scoff at the idea. And more powerful than their words are the perspectives their planes provide. They can literally fly you over the islands and the attempted berm building and you can see hydrology at work, you can see the manmade effort failing.