From the frontlines: New Orleans in the wake of the BP oil spill

New Orleans, USA – Aug. 29 marks five years since the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on the Southern coast of the United States. The anniversary of the natural disaster was marked by President Obama’s visit to New Orleans, who was met with another catastrophe – this time man-made.

Facing the aftermath of the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill, caused by an explosion of British Petroleum’s (BP) oil rig Deepwater Horizon, the president’s administration has pledged stringent fiscal measures in order to jumpstart recovery following the disaster.

“I’ll not be satisfied until the environment has been restored, no matter how long it takes,” Obama stated in Panama City Beach, Florida on Aug. 14.

Many, however, simply cannot wait any longer. Life along the gulf has become a balancing act of survival. For small fishing communities, recovery programs following Katrina have progressed slowly. The floods and destruction claimed $100 billion in damages, along with the lives of just over 1,500 people in New Orleans alone.

However, revival of the region was progressing until the recession flattened economic advancements in 2008, decreasing employment rates in New Orleans to a level seven percent lower than those of 2005. This year, the BP catastrophe seemed to deliver the final blow to the people and region of the Gulf of Mexico.

Following an explosion on the rig that took place on April 20 of this year, which has claimed a total of thirteen lives since its occurrence, millions of gallons of crude oil were released into the Gulf.

The weeks that followed the initial disaster were met with varying levels of success in capping the spill. The leak was eventually capped on July 15 but not before releasing what BBC has reported as 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Atlantic Ocean at a rate varying from 53,000 to 62,000 barrels a day.

What it means for wildlife

A Coast Guard operator from Tennessee, who wished to remain anonymous said that crude oil regularly leaks from slits in the ocean floor, allowing the region to have the capacity to absorb oil via bacterium naturally occurring in the water. Weather patterns have also aided in dispersing the oil into low-threat regions. As well, the clean-up responses of both BP and the federal government have had an integral role in greatly diminishing the impact of the spill.

Yet the incident has still taken an undeniable toll. Eight US national parks stand threatened by
oxygen depletion and petroleum toxicity. More than 400 species of animals, both aquatic and terrestrial, are at risk in the Gulf region and thus far more than 5,000 dead mammals have been recovered.

The spill has also been taking its toll on an animal preservation program close to the hearts of Gulf natives. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries launched an alligator management program in 1972 which has since grown to become one of the most successful programs of its kind in the world.

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Photo by Alex Mitsiopoulos

Louisiana has the largest alligator population in the US.

At the program’s inception in 1972, alligators numbered close to 150,000 in Louisiana. As a result of the program, the alligator population has grown to over three million. However, the spill threatens to diminish that growing population.

A Consolidated Fish and Wildlife Collection Report released on Aug. 29 by US Fish and Wildlife Service has placed the number of dead birds, sea turtles, mammals and other reptiles collected on the coast as a result of the spill at a staggering 5,946. The number of visibly oiled live organisms collected by the service since the disaster has been placed at 2,487.

Reuters has reported that scientists are expressing concern about the effects that cannot be seen caused by underwater plumes of dispersed oil, such as long-term disruptions in the food chain.

In layman’s terms

For the people of New Orleans, the oil spill has become the primary determinant of their livelihood, whether good or bad. Many in and around the fishing communities of Louisiana endure a love-hate relationship with BP. Some quietly tolerate the presence of the oil giant, some refer to it with disdain, while others live by the company.

The quality of life for Robert Jefferson, a commercial fisherman living in Covington County, Louisiana, has increased exponentially at the hands of BP.

“We love BP,” Jefferson states. “They put me and my ship back to work right after the disaster.”
As a facet of BP’s clean-up response efforts, captains and their fishing boats were employed to help clean up the spill.

Jefferson continued, stating “they’re paying me $1,500 a day for my boat, they’re paying me $800 as a captain and they’re paying my wife $600 a day to continue work as my first mate as she did before.”

Many fisherman like Jefferson were hired to deploy and collect containment booms which absorb oil appearing in the water.

“I’m receiving an exorbitant amount of money to continue working at a rate that none of us ever expected. Above and beyond that, I’ve been instructed that I can still sue for damages, even after all the money I’ve been paid so far,” he added.

However, Jefferson represents a minority of fisherman in the area who were selected to continue with the assistance. Many workers in the industry were ordered ashore due to the presentation of a variety of health risks.

As a result, some individuals do not share Jefferson’s enthusiasm. For those like Peter Jenning, a fisherman living near Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana, extensive damage has already been done.

“We are unsure exactly how badly the spill would affect our lives. The oil may be cleaned up, but the spill area has become a dead zone, maybe for decades to come,” said Jenning.

“Katrina took away most of what I had and BP came along to claim the rest.”

Many feel alienated and forgotten by BP. Those in the fishing communities are unsure to what extent BP will be prosecuted and held responsible.

For now, it is a struggle for many to even become eligible for BP’s $20 billion compensation fund. Many families are confronted with the challenging decision between enduring years of litigation or accepting a settlement without being sure of the damages sustained.

As well, the existence of a controversial clause that establishes eligibility by proximity to the Gulf and the spill has complicated matters. Many fishermen or boat operators whose businesses have been directly affected by the spill should have no difficulties submitting claims.

However, companies from out of the state, whose business contracts are held with partners in the affected region, for example, will be hard-pressed to make a case.

Ron Abellard, the owner and operator of a bait and tackle shop in Meridian, Mississippi said his store has been supplying fisherman in the Gulf for nearly a decade.

“My business has suffered a lot after the spill. My lawyer has told me the outlook for claims is grim,” Abellard stated. “But it’s not over, and we’ll keep pushing.”

That NOLA optimism

While recovery has been hard, the people living in and around the Gulf area have proven their resiliency. According to the Brookings Institute, more than 90 per cent of the population of New Orleans have returned to the region since Hurricane Katrina and 85 per cent of the jobs had been re-established as of June. Neighbourhoods and communities band together in civic duty, which the Wall Street Journal has attributed to grassroots organizations, rather than governmental intervention.

“The people are very optimistic,” stated Judy Leonhard, a chef in the French Quarter. “As trivial as it may sound, folks here were given a boost when the Saints won the Super Bowl.”

Leonhard explained that the team’s victory earlier this year symbolized how the city could transcend the ruin they faced and truly believe that success was possible.

“I feel like the Saints almost had to win to give this city the wake up it needed,” concluded Leonhard.

Open season

As New Orleans is experiencing some new found buoyancy, the state of Louisiana has begun to discuss the impending start to shrimp fishing season. Typically set on the third Monday of August, the season has been largely dominated by uncertainty.

Since the spill began, certain areas of state water have been kept open to harvest brown shrimp; but now even the larger more desirable white shrimp have been deemed safe for human consumption by the US government. However, it has proven difficult to convince consumers.

John Morin, a restaurant employee in the French Quarter, explains his difficulties in finding suitable seafood to serve.

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Photo by Alex Mitsiopoulos

Bourbon Street, a must-see cultural attraction in the city’s French Quarter, is lined with bars, restaurants, strip clubs and souvenir shops. The area is one of New Orlean’s oldest and most famous, dating back to its founding in 1718.

“We do not sell Gulf products here,” he assures. “We simply can’t do it; the customers would never eat here.”

The majority of Gulf of Mexico fisheries in US federal waters were shut down following the spill which is a fact difficult for most consumers to ignore.

Overall, Louisiana accounts for 72 per cent of the seafood that is collected from the Gulf region.

According to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, 17 million kilograms of catch was yielded just last year. This year, the catch stands at just over six million kilograms.

The department has estimated that it will be more than five years before the consumer will trust the Louisiana brand again.

Crude lessons learned

For BP, currently one of the most notorious companies in the US and the rest of the world, the next step is to reinvent their image entirely, in order to gain back the people’s trust. The lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska 21 years ago could prove to be an invaluable source of guidance for BP.

The disaster in Alaska led to a merciless shakeup of Exxon company policy which has yielded safer policies for operation. In 2006, Exxon terminated drilling in the Gulf of Mexico due to safety concerns, even after investing $185 million and 575 days drilling. Since 1989, Exxon has become the largest publicly traded international oil company largely due to their heightened levels of corporate responsibility.

For the population of New Orleans, the next few years present an interesting scenario: The spill has put the city back into the spotlight. Many residents are optimistic that this will help expose some of the lingering needs that remained unaddressed from Katrina, such as stimulating economic diversity and rebuilding the region.

“Everyone’s focused on all the negatives here; I like to think of it as more of an opportunity.
There’s a lot of unfinished business here,” Jefferson concluded.