It was like watching a bunch of little people clean the world’s largest litter box, with older tarballs dry and easy to bag but recent arrivals messy and laborious.
Get used to the artful dodges.
I'D BE LYING IF I SAID the Gulf Coast in the summer of 2010 was a miserable place. Most of it was stunning. But there was misery to be found, and over the course of several weeks, I found it. A few days after our sailing trip, I visited the Gulf Coast Research Lab, in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and rode in one of Jimbo's SWAT boats to a stretch of marsh grass so coated with oil that my fingers stuck to it. Sprawled across the grass was a long piece of absorbent boom, now black with oil, that had broken loose. Next to it was a big chunk of high-tech flotation foam, probably wreckage from the Deepwater Horizon. It had been reported to BP a week earlier.
At Grand Isle, Louisiana, the beach was closed for miles, blocked off with plastic orange construction screen. Signs on the road advertised ONSITE DISASTER RELIEF CATERING. The sand had been scrubbed, spun, and surf-washed so thoroughly by contractors that it sparkled. But at the far end of the island, at Grand Isle State Park, I found a young ranger named Leanne Sarco quietly Q-tipping oil off hermit crabs one at a time. She wore white and was oil-smeared from her shoes to her blond hair. Sarco led me along a path to the last wild beach on the island, a magnet for birds and other wildlife. Crude rippled in the tidepools. The sand was the color of coffee grounds. When you squeezed a handful, globs of black jelly oozed out. The state park had asked BP not to bring in its machinery for fear that the cleanup effort would be more damaging to the ecosystem than the oil. But it was not a pretty sight. She told me that the oil had seeped several feet below the surface and would be bubbling up for years.
The irony nobody wants to talk about is that all the lands in the Mississippi River Delta now hosting cleanup crews are dying anyway. The levees that unnaturally hold back the Mississippi present a perilous Catch-22, ostensibly protecting the land from flooding and storm surges yet helping to ensure that it will all fall into the gulf: Square miles of Louisiana vanish every year. Even if we could somehow degrease the hundreds of miles of oily coastline without harming a single bird or blade of grass, the river delta would still most likely cease to exist sometime this century. It's sinking. New Orleans is on course to disappear beneath the waves, the American Atlantis.
That realization sucker-punched me the day I spent in Terrebonne Parish on boom patrol with Virgil Dardar, a 52-year-old man of Cajun and Native American descent. Virgil, who goes by the nickname Kadoo, lives on Isle de Jean Charles, a three-mile spit of dry ground in the marshes 30 miles northwest of Grand Isle. For 170 years, his ancestors have survived by fishing and hunting the marshes. They used to farm, too, until their soil became inundated with salt water. Hurricanes like Katrina, Rita, and Gustav have left the island a disaster zone of smashed homes, beached boats, and dead trees. Isle de Jean Charles is crumbling into the water in real time. Stand at the end, dangle your toes over the edge, and watch it go.
The paved road to Isle de Jean Charles cuts across two miles of open water that used to be marsh. Now, waves gnaw at it 24/7. It submerges completely every time a south wind accompanies the high tide, emerging a few hours later and a few millimeters smaller. Even at low tide, much of it is down to one jagged lane. A snaking line of orange cones leads cars along the safest path.
Kadoo has been an oysterman all his life. But the oil spill closed all the oyster grounds, possibly for years, so he'd hired on to patrol those same areas for oil or loose boom. He was surprisingly chipper about it. Good money, a fast skiff, and a hot breakfast and bag lunch every day. Best of all, he felt respected.
Indeed, as Kadoo drove me around with BP's Chatt Smith, I realized the company would be utterly lost without local watermen like Kadoo. The area is changing so fast that the maps are virtually useless. When we left the dock, we boated beneath power lines that had been on dry ground 30 years ago. They were sunk deep, their poles cocked at alarming angles, and the boat channel ducked right through them. Dead cypress and oak trees stuck out of the water, their skeletal trunks bleached by the sun. I asked Kadoo if he remembered them. "Oh, sure," he said, "them trees was alive 15 years ago."