As I approached the Gulf coast through the jungle of roads, bill boards, street signs, cacophonous businesses/buildings having no natural or rational order, yet not random – a new order made of opportunity and expectation, an order fully appreciated by no one – and there was more. Little islands of irrepressible real coastal jungle, tall grass and low trees, filling the gaps left by roads, parking lots and buildings: as I approached the beaches that had so captivated our human imagination that we built taller and taller as we built closer and closer; like an exponential growth curve climbing to its zenith and then diving into the sea: as I approached I seemed to see in the coastal haze and seemed to smell on the salt air the devastation of the drilling and the spilling in the Gulf.
And yet, the approach road ended. I turned east along the shore. People were walking on the beach and playing at playing in the water, if not in droves, then in some abundance. The coast road was filled with cars. I could see oil rigs out in the water, a mile, two miles or more from shore violating that clear demarcation of land and water, giving the sense that we humans were poised to spring out, cat-like, onto the sea with our buildings.
Katrina had come and gone leaving the occasional hulk and husk of a building too embarrassed to continue on, but altogether most of Katrina’s scars had been internalized as ruined lives and anxious fears; no longer visible from the street and therefore no longer real except to the scarred.
Now there was oil in the northern Gulf, perhaps 5 million barrels, perhaps more, but other than the strangely named floating walls called booms, strategically placed to look silly and useless, there was little evidence of it. I could not smell it, could not see it. People were using nature’s facilities in reasonably large numbers.
Now and again I thought that I smelled something, but one always smells something along the gulf coast: dead fish, the heavy breathing of diesel boat engines and the general aroma of human activity mixing with the salt sea air. I could never pinpoint a passing aromatic molecule as errant crude oil or chemical dispersant.
The human investments in buildings, boats, activities, etc., are just too big to be compromised by having damaged the water, the ecosystems of the water, the air. “Our way of life” had somehow become more important than life; no amount of damage is too much in support of our way of life. And conversely, if the damage is not immediate and directly impacting on the obvious manifestations of our presence, then it has no reality even as it may be the most “real.”
I am, like most of my fellow humans, greatly influenced by the behavior of the crowd. If people are running for the door yelling ‘fire,’ then I too will be running for the door. If people are calm and staying, figuratively or literally, in their seats, it is difficult to think about the building collapsing. The visible world of the Gulf coast seemed to be running along smoothly.
The 24/7 news (sic) machine had created the expectation that Billy Nungesser and others like him would be out on the street corners demanding justice. It was not beyond the imagination that lines of hazmat suited tar-ball pickers might have been seen. No, the only signs were bits of retaining boom, too many fishing boats moored up tight in the commercial marinas and a vague, perhaps imaginary, whiff of organic or corporate corruption.
* * *
I pulled up to some shaded tables, parked and began looking for information about the ferry that crossed the mouth of Mobile Bay. A pleasant looking couple, the only people around, were seated at one of the benches. I asked and they knew.
The gentleman, it turned out in further conversation, was retired from BP and had been asked to come back because of his experience with large scale management issues. He talked with the candor and stealth of a wise man. I can’t say that I learned anything new from him, but I can’t say that I didn’t either.
When the rig burned and sank there was literal panic in the regional BP offices. Operations with 4 or 5 people went to 40 and 50,even 100, overnight. Equipment of all kinds was rushed to the Gulf coast; the impression that I got was that it didn’t matter so much what it was, only that it be staged ready for use. I have to assume that confusion was primary, real information almost absent and planning nonexistent.
My correspondent didn’t talk about the adequacy of the various measures reported on the news and I was more interested in what he would volunteer than interrogating him. He clearly knew crude oil chemistry as well as the conditions along the coastline and surface water – places that the public could see directly. He also knew the history of the Campeche and Exxon Valdez spills. And he was not predicting the future for this one.
When I suggested that a million barrels might have been released into the Gulf, he didn’t correct me. Actually my math gives a figure closer to 4 or 5 times that amount . I expressed a concern about the effects of dispersants both directly and on the crude oil and the long-term consequences. He minimized the consequences to the Gulf of the Campeche spill and pointed out that the Exxon Valdez effects are still on going. What he didn’t do, didn’t seem possible for him to do, was to claim that all was fine, that there are nothing to worry about.
The fishing fleets are returning to business in some areas, I saw a couple of shrimp boats that seemed to be working and a few small sports fishing boats running to some potentially productive spot, but the real test will be next year as the effects of toxicity on coastal breeding and hatching areas are tested. The real test will be in the behavior of oil companies and government oversight agencies and whether if not having devastated the Gulf’s ecosystems will be seen as a dodged bullet and a caution or as license to greater excesses of risky behavior.
My parting words with the gentleman from BP were about our children and the price that they would almost certainly have to pay for our present excesses. There we found agreement in concern, but no solutions.
 50,000 barrels a day for 89 days equals 4,450,000. 60,000 barrels per day for 89 days equals 5,340,000. There is no reason to think that the early delivery was less than later on since BP makes the argument that the pressure was reduced toward the end of the free flow period when 50,000 barrels per day is an accepted figure.