Grand Isle and the Illusion of Health
As I step from the airplane onto the accordian walkway I bump into a wall of heat and humidity that I had forgotten existed. July in New Orleans is not hospitable. The thick weather was created for flying cockroaches and alligators not modern, whimpy humans.
I am in town for a week to visit with my family and am curious to see if there was evidence of the BP tragedy in my hometown. What I do find is very interesting and consistent with a place that lives with the tangible possibility of danger and excitement on a seasonal basis. The two seasons that come to mind are hurricane and Mardi Gras.
In Sacramento where I live the oil "spill" is a persistent topic of conversation. My neighbors talk about it. Commentors and posters on FDL write about it. I have to admit to be obsessed by it.
But in New Orleans I find that the disaster is not the first thing to be discussed. New Orleanians have adapted to the possibility of high water either from the river or the coast since its founding in 1718. People are still trying to overcome the physical and mental stress of Katrina. Perhaps since neighborhoods and business districts have not yet been marked by oil there is no sense of urgency. And New Orleans has never been known for its sense of urgency. It also seems unfair that a people should have to absorb so much negative information.
On Saturday my friend, Sydney (name changed to provide anonymity) and I go to Grand Isle. Sydney has been going there for years to fish and hang out with compatriots. It takes two hours to drive there. The land is flat. Then it gets flatter. Then it becomes water. There are rows on the horizon of dead oaks where the salt water has eroded inland. It has been a wet summer and the Mississippi river has pushed water into the last places that can hold it. The ride is green, blue and white; vegetation, sky and clouds.
Usually, this is the time of year when the little town would be filled with fishermen. They have been replaced with cleanup crews and security guards. The crews are kept herded together. They are dressed in white clothes, big straw hats, and black or yellow boots. They are bound together by a fraternity of sweat and a clear need for employment. The guards wear clean, perfect British Petroleum t-shirts with security badges. You can tell everyone is waiting for the day to be over. It is 91 degrees and the heat index is at 105.
The first beach we see is clean. There are rows of orange, water filled booms about fifty feet from the gulf. Tracks from a bulldozer persist up and down the entire beach. Way in the distance to the east you can see people slowly bending and shoveling. I climb over the booms and land on the lower part of the beach. I am hit with a sudden odor of oil. This smell lives close to the sand and is pungent.
I keep thinking "Where is the death and destruction? I don’t see any damn oil!"
Sydney takes me to the mangroves in the wetlands. The water is murky but it often is. Big swirls are evidence of red fish. Herons hang on the mangroves hunched over waiting for a meal.
We make our way to Grand Isle State Park and Pier. British Petroleum has a huge compound there to feed the workers. There are three large white tents filled with mostly men eating their lunches. The tents are air conditioned.
We meet Giada Connestari, a photographer and Emanuele Bompan, a reporter. Both are from Italy. The four of us walk through the tents and onto the pier. Sydney asks me later if I had heard all of the coughing in the tents. I had not. I was mostly taking in the air conditioning and watching people suck down sandwiches and soft drinks.
At all entrances and exits to beaches and parking lots the ubiquitous BP guards are on patrol. You can tell they had been schooled on smiles and p.r. They are now pretending the beaches belong to the public until they are told otherwise. I also notice that most of the cleanup crew is black. Most of the security guards are not. It reminds me of chain gangs I saw as a very small child but without the strain of unadulterated repression running through it.
We walk down the pier to the gulf. Brown pelicans dive after invisible fish. A shark swims looking for prey. We talk to people investigating or vacationing. Everyone is dismayed that things look so good. Emanuele Bompan who is also a cartographer explains that the beaches had just been cleaned and that oil is expected to be back that night. He also tells us that size of the land mass relative to the size of the spill means that things will seem normal in a lot of areas. This is particularly true since most of the oil is still at the bottom of the gulf or mingling with Corexit to form a more toxic soup. Damn dispersants. The chemical gives an illusion of health where there is none.
Sydney and I are tired and hungry. We leave the beach and drive back into Grand Isle to find a restaurant. We don’t get to see one another very often and have an intentionally leisurely meal. We eat shrimp and sausage gumbo. Sydney has a crab meat poboy. I have a BLT. It is one of the most satisfying meals I have had in a long time.
On the plane ride back to California I sit next to a young man heading towards Portland. He is a helicopter mechanic and has been working on the spill. The company who employs him has been dropping sand bags in front of wetlands to try and protect them from the corruption they will certainly endure. He tells me that the camp in Venice, La where he and eight of his fellow workers have been living was just rented out for $2400 a night (24 beds) for the next year by the Louisiana Department of Fish and Game. This comes to a total of $876,000 for the year. At least one family on the coast of Louisiana will be secure for a good long while.
*Below are photographs of Grand Isle taken in the 1920’s and 1930’s by Fonville Winans. He is well known in Louisiana. He also took a portrait of my family in 1958 when I was eight years old.