by Jason Berry
When BP’s platform exploded in the Gulf, killing 11 men, New Orleans had slowly, achingly, begun to get past Hurricane Katrina. Nearly five years on, many neighborhoods in the vast urban expanse that went underwater—an area eight times larger than Manhattan—had rejoined the B-flat hum of the city. Federal funds had finally hit the streets, a charismatic new mayor had replaced a disastrously inefficient administration, and, most miraculously, the hard-luck Saints had won the Super Bowl, putting the image of a victim city to rest.
Yet, the “largest environmental hazard in American history” revealed a political debacle whose divisions will be a long time in healing.
Louisiana pols have kept mum on steps the state should take to remediate what is left of the wetlands now being poisoned. The legislature had no interest in a tax on oil to start repairing a shoreline so diminished that within seven years the Gulf will be lapping 35 miles from New Orleans. A generation ago it was 90 miles. If ever there was a time to mount that issue, this is it.
Instead, Washington-bashing carried the day.
The federal government never had the hardware to “take over” the crisis—the robots, underwater cameras, high-paid engineers and billions in technology that BP brought to bear. Obama’s sluggish response hurt him politically, but the only real weapons he had were to: (1) put pressure on BP to increase compensation money; (2) determine how much in emergency funds to seek from Congress and a debt-swollen federal fisc; and (3) develop a prosecution strategy against BP now once the leak was plugged.
Gov. Bobby Jindal and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser railed endlessly against the federal response, insisting that sand berms be installed to forestall the oil slick. But their grandstanding ignored the lack of scientific testing to prove that the berms would work, which they have not. But frightened people like to see politicians shaking their fists at heartless federals.
The Louisiana legislature, consumed with the bloody job of gutting higher education programs to balance the budget, took a long powder from the issues of a traumatized post-BP lowlands. What does that subsurface ocean of oil hold for the web of marine life across the years to come? How far will the leaching migrate? Can it be stopped?
Louisiana’s $3 billion seafood industry has taken a huge hit. Prices rise, fishing families go under. “A way of life is dying before our eyes” became a media mantra.
But with a state budget whose modest tax revenues from industry are tied to the price of oil, the legislative dons had no plan. Can you imagine New York being passive in a crisis like this? Or the statehouse in Boston?
Every morning the Times-Picayune has been publishing a map that pinpoints where oil tar hit marshlands or beach front, with a larger, dark gray area on the geographic expansion as the spill moves west to east. The map denotes an “Area of Uncertainty.” It is a metaphor of the collective mind. We live in an area of uncertainty. If, God forbid, a hurricane of Katrina’s force should hit the Gulf and surge into New Orleans—or Gulfport, or Mobile, or Destin—the impact of petroleum flooding would be beyond category.
From the outlying districts—as happens every evening in our town—a gentle breeze wafted a murmur of voices, smells of roasting meat, a gay, perfumed tide of freedom sounding on its way, as the streets filled up with noisy young people released from shops and offices. Nightfall, with its deep, remote baying of unseen ships, the rumor rising from the sea … seemed today charged with menace.
In those lines from The Plague, Albert Camus describes the port of Oran, in 1940s French Algeria, at the early signs of bubonic plague, rats dying in the street, his metaphor for the Nazi occupation. I do not suggest we lump BP into an analogy so harsh; but the sensation of daily life imperiled by a sinister unknown, as pervades Camus’ novel, has settled across Gulf Coast cities and villages as we watch a federal government that lacks the tools to counter an ecological hazard of this scope, and the crippled response of governors, senators and congressman in the spill zone, who are loathe to make the oil industry more accountable. The “spill” resembles a big budget disaster or sci-fi thriller, although we have no happy ending for this script, not even a solution.
The shadow story of the oil spill is a kind of subdued panic, fear over what we cannot control, fear at helpless passivity.
Louisiana elected officials rail against the Obama administration for the moratorium on deep-water drilling until new safety standards are put in place to gauge against another blow-out. That precaution makes sense in light of BP’s horrendous safety record. Yet, in these latitudes, the losses have taken such a toll that people hold a greater fear of more unemployment should the rigs pull out to Brazil or West Africa, where safeguards are slack. What is the imperfect solution? To gamble that the untested wells aren’t flawed like BP’s, and shore up a battered economy, or to err on caution’s side against another crippling mistake by industry?
How strangely ironic that New Orleans—an economic backwater where America’s native art form blossomed a century ago—should end up as dateline for two disaster epics, Katrina and BP, that stand as signposts of a troubling new era.
The legendary stoicism Camus imbued in his seaside town is a worthy model to emulate at such a turning point. Yet stoicism is alien to a state with a history of political demagogues, as it is against type in the cradle of jazz.
At night, noisy young people jostle along Frenchmen Street where the fifth generation of brass bands since jazz play “Didn’t He Ramble” against the unseen menace. A surge of hope rises with those horns. In the countless personal diasporas after Katrina, several thousand musicians managed to scrape their way back home, determined to reclaim a spiritual terrain. In a sense, the rest of us followed, drawn to a life force carried by the music, embodied by the city. Here we stand, feet on soggy soil, living against the odds, waiting, hoping, wondering, with ears pitched to a faint, distant melody of redemption.
Jason Berry, a journalist and novelist from New Orleans, was honored as the 2008 LEH Humanist of the Year. This essay was reprinted from PoliticsDaily.com.