Oil makes landfall: My Friday in Louisiana

April 30, 2010
I’m bringing this blog out of retirement for one post. This one feels important enough to restart my presses for a night.

Above, The Chief Operations Officer of BP speaks at a press conference surrounded by some of the most powerful people in America. Their expressions tell it all.

The winds shifted, the tides turned, and the state of Louisiana awoke Friday to a sobering reality – the oil had arrived.

A 20-mile-per-hour wind whipped in from the Gulf, bringing a menacing gray overcast and dumping showers of rain. But in a state still battle-hardened from Hurricane Katrina, it wasn’t the weather that worried people — it was the smell.

Before Friday, the 100-mile oil slick spreading across the Gulf was a problem over the horizon, out of sight and for many, mostly out of mind.

But the morning winds carried an acrid odor north from the Gulf, saturating New Orleans and reaching as far inland as Interstate 12 on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. It was a smell that AM radio show callers struggled to describe, but placed somewhere between drying paint and gasoline.

As the hours passed, calls came in from fishermen deep in the Mississippi Delta — the strain in their voices clear, even over the crackling AM broadcast.

“The oysters… They’re going to die,” said the owner of a Venice marina. “Who’s gonna want to go fish in a bay full of oil?”

About 100 miles to the fisherman’s north, near the lonely town of Robert, La., a cluster of buildings at the end of a dead-end street have become the central command for the coming battle against the oil slick.

At a secluded facility, which is usually used to train oil workers, more than a dozen political powerhouses descended to deliver a press conference fit for the Pentagon.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. Department of Interior head Ken Salazar. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Ranking Coast Guard officers and wildlife officials.

All took to the podium, delivering pulpit-pounding speeches, which all but declared war on the approaching oil slick. They gave assurances. Outlined strategies. Promised resources.

Jindal offered up the house: During a rapid-fire speech, he said he offered BP all that the state had to give — up to, and including, training prisoners to clean oil from wetlands.

“We’re still awaiting a detailed response from BP about how to deploy these resources,” Jindal said.

Standing nearby was the wild-card attendee, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles — the public face of the company responsible for the spill and whatever consequences are left to come.

Suttles described the current efforts as “the largest response ever in the world,” and gave some updated numbers. About 1,900 personnel currently deployed, 300 boats and ships on the Gulf. Dozens of aircraft. A current cost of $6 million to $7 million a day and rising.

What they didn’t have was many answers.

How long until the gushing oil well is plugged? How much oil is leaking out? What consequences for the environment? How did this happen?

The common refrain: We still don’t know.

Suttle delivered more troubling news. The seas Friday were too rough for oil skimming boats to work. So as the slick made first groundfall in Louisiana, their 300-boat fleet would watch helplessly from port.

When asked if she was disappointed in BP’s floundering efforts thus far, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano thought for several seconds before delivering a carefully worded answer.

“This well was drilled with the expectation that if there were an explosion or a failure, that a blowout preventer would close out a leakage into the ocean…” Napolitano said. “None of those worked, and I think I share the disappointment of all, that none of those worked.

“We will work to make sure that BP fulfills its financial obligation,” Napolitano said.

A sentiment echoed by Robert Hutchinson, 71, of Angie, La., who was eating lunch about a mile down the road at Minnie’s Roadhouse, and was unaware the diner was at ground zero for oil spill response.

“BP should be responsible for this. That’s a money-making organization,” Hutchinson said. “Why don’t they have to pay back the shrimpers and the fishers?”

He sat back in his chair and wondered out loud if the oil would come far enough up the rivers to affect his home, which he described as “so deep in the woods that they have to pump daylight in.”

“What this is going to do, who knows,” Hutchinson said. “There’s a lot of questions.”

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The Last Press

May 31, 2009

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The Pensacola News Journal’s press will never run again.

For more than a dozen years, it’s rumbled to life like a dinosaur in the night. At about 11 p.m. the last plate is cut — several hours after most of the newsroom staff has filed their stories and drifted  into the dark.

Mirror images of carefully edited pages are carved on to shiny metal sheets and attached to the faces of a dozen massive machined drums. On the ground floor, enormous reams of paper are wheeled into position, waiting patiently under the hum of fluorescent lights to be fed into the beast.

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Upstairs, a half-dozen men stand at the ready.

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They poke and prod at panels and dials. Behind them, an electronic sign hangs silently on the wall. It reads zero. But not for long.

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A button is pressed, and a thousand tons of man and machine lurch into motion. Their mass and speed belie their delicate dance as they spread words and photographs across acres of white paper.

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Stacks of neatly folded pages pour from the beast like a waterfall through the rocks. They pass in a flourish under the watchful eyes of the half-dozen men, who grab still-wet pages at random and scrutinize them under bright lights, seeing imperfections invisible to my eye, and fine tuning the beast with a few taps on decade-old buttons.

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The cascade pours through the wall into a huge room that bustles with noise and motion. Pages are stacked, wrapped and carted away into the night. By daylight, they’ll be placed on front porches and driveways, stuffed into newspaper boxes or sold on street corners.

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It was our words. It was your news. It was our city. It was your press.

And before most of you knew, it was gone.

More than 80 people were laid off. The printing is done in Mobile now. No one really knows how much longer the rest of us will remain. Even the question if we will remain is uncertain.

Inside a quiet gray building in downtown Pensacola, we just hope your newspaper will survive.

And you should too.

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NOISE

May 19, 2009

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I’m not a big fan of on-camera flash. Back when I first started shooting, I had an old Pentax manual camera with a 50mm lens that opened to F/1.4. (Really high quality optics, for the non-photography savvy.)

If I combined that with some ISO 800 film, I rarely needed a flash anyway.

But now in the digital age, I’m shooting with crummy zoom lenses, and if I’m in a low-light situation, I’ve got two options. Buy a nice pan/tilt flash (starting around $200. Nope) or turn the ISO on the camera all the way up to maximum sensitivity.  (ISO1600 on my work camera and ISO1000 on mine).

I can usually get reasonably sharp pictures at these high ISOs, but the downside is terrible noise, like in the title photo.

Until now, I’ve just lived with the high noise and cruised Craigslist for new equipment. But this week I found a third option.

A program called Neat Image does a fantastic job at removing noise from digital images. I tried tons of other stuff, Photoshop filters and the like, but nothing even came close to what Neat Image can pull off.

Some examples from photos I shot while filming a Little Theatre audition tonight:

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The above are 100% zoom crops of photos before and after processing them with Neat Image. Here are a couple more.

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Maybe it’s just that I’ve been suffering through high-noise images for a couple years, but this program absolutely knocks my socks off. I can’t believe how good of a job it does. Stumbling across it on the Internet was as exciting for me as the last three Christmases combined.

The home edition costs $30 on their website — an ultra bargain compared to a $200-$500 flash, or $400 for a new 50mm f/1.4.

A smoking bargain.

Anyway, about the Little Theater:

Our online editor asked me to shoot video tonight at an audition for the Pensacola Little Theatre, a local non-profit organization for young aspiring actors. I’ve read about them before, but I’ve never really gotten to see what they do.

Tonight, they were holding open auditions for Disney’s High School Musical, which, apparently, is the hottest thing since sliced bread right now.

It was such a fun assignment. I’ll tell more of the story as the video project comes together, but until then, here are a couple of the photos I shot tonight. (And processed with Neat Image!)

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Auditions have got to be scary…


Uhh, Oops…

May 18, 2009

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So there I was; standing on the ramp at Pensacola Naval Air Station with dozens of cheering people welcoming a plane full of wounded veterans.

As the vets deplaned, the first was carried down the back stairs and placed in his wheelchair. He waved. Everyone cheered.

A big line formed, and all of the well wishers shook hands with the vets as they got off the plane and walked toward their bus.

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I’m running around like crazy trying to get good shots. It was hot that afternoon. Sweat dripped off the end of my nose and on to the camera’s LCD screen as I checked an exposure.

Then I saw it. Across the ramp. I twisted on my long lens and fired off a half dozen shots. “That’s the shot right there,” I thought.

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The editors thought so too. They ran it on the top of the front page. “Wounded Vets Arrive.” I love it when they run my photos on the front page. Seeing a photo you took through the front glass of a newsstand is so cool.

I didn’t talk to the guy. He was on the bus moments later, and I was still shooting. The next day, another reporter followed up on the story, and ran into the guy with the prosthetic leg. They chatted for a minute.

“By the way,” the reporter asked. “How did you lose your leg?”

The reply was rather sheepish. “Motorcycle accident.”

Whatever, I’m still putting the front page on my refrigerator for a while. 🙂


Time to notice

May 16, 2009

A last minute assignment this morning. Church members feed the homeless. Add it to the pile, I’ve covered plenty of these before. No biggie.

I drove up and pulled into a little church on Davis Highway. Heirs of the Kingdom Church — cool name. There were a handful of church members standing out front.

They took me inside. Introduced me to the pastor. They were all extremely nice. I was a little bit distracted. In the back of my mind, I was thinking about other assignments. Deadlines. Hours.

This is the first time the church has done one of these, and they decided to go all out. Along with showers, haircuts and BBQ ribs, they were giving out back massages and foot rubs. I was impressed. I fired off a few frames, knowing the photos would probably be buried in the paper. Feed the homeless stories are, after all, pretty routine.

Back in the office, while scrolling through my roll of mediocre shots, this photo stopped me in my tracks.

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The woman in the middle. I never saw her. Never got her name.  She must have come into the room as I was slinking into a corner to frame these shots. Before that, she came from some shelter, or camp, or God knows where.

She came for a warm shower and a hot meal. That’s what was on the flier. Imagine the surprise when she walked into that room. Scented oils in the air. Soft music. Massages. She sat down quietly, folded her hands, and smiled.

I never saw her.

It was quiet in the newsroom when I got back. Empty cubicles. Black computer screens. Except for mine, which glowed with emotion. It choked me up. It still does.

How many times before have I not noticed her? How many times have we passed on the street? In a shelter? At a soup kitchen? Me carrying my notepad and camera, skittering about and then rushing off, without ever taking the time to notice her.

Thank God that someone takes time.


Getting tight…

May 13, 2009

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Tuesday:

9 a.m. Stop by the newsroom. Cup of coffee. Check the schedule. Eleven stories due this week for three publications. Scheduling oversight? Nope. Better get going.

Volkswagen mechanic shop interviews for Sunday Life feature. No old-school Beetles or Busses around. “Dude, photos will be so much better with an old Beetle!” They’ll call when one comes in.

Back to newsroom. Set up photographers for weekend events.

Four hours on the keyboard writing about charter fishermen for Sunday Business story.

6 p.m. phone interview Perdido Key Association director.

Wednesday:

10 a.m. interview in Perdido Key for Pensacola Business Journal. Chatty interviewee. Quotable though. Runs long.

Hit the highway looking for photo ops. Key is deserted. Empty parking lots everywhere. Adjust and overcome… Sweet talk way up to condo balcony to shoot panorama of empty parking lots.

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Get back to car. Sky is pretty today. Shoot panorama of condos.

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Drive to interview near FloraBama. See abandoned slab and parking lot. Panorama? Why not? (Theme for story develops in head: Perdido lost).

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Interview, skip lunch, drive to newsroom, four hours on the keyboard.

6 p.m. Call Navy admiral at home to get info on breaking news story.

Thursday:

9 a.m. “Baby Milton” (dead baby found in woods a while back) autopsy report is complete. Two hours of incessant rapid-fire phone calls to Medical Examiner’s office trying to get a copy. Manager says she’ll fax it Monday. Telephone pestilence continues. Victory! Get faxed a copy. Write story.

1 p.m. Leave for event coverage at Pensacola NAS. Get phone call from VW guys. They have a classic Beetle in the shop for one hour. U-turn. Click, click, click.

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Show up for Pensacola NAS 30 minutes late, sweaty, with grease all over knees from shop floor. They’re still glad to see me.

Newsroom: write, file, run.

Friday: (Night Cop Shift)

1 p.m. NAS for event coverage. Flirt briefly with favorite TV news reporter. (Still no luck. I’ll grow on her come hurricane season.) Attempt to focus on event. Do interviews after event. See Admiral from Wednesday late phone call. Say hello. End up interviewing about unrelated story.

Newsroom: write, file. Call police/EMS/Sheriff’s office/fire departments to check for crime/carnage/crazyness. Joke with sleepy fireman.

9 p.m. Call county commissioners, Century Mayor, and County Tax Collector at homes and cell phones for breaking-news interview on closing Century Courthouse. Only Tax Collector answers. (Bless her heart!) Write, file, run.

Saturday:

8:30 a.m. Battle reenactment downtown. See photographer. He says I should have brought earplugs. Points to cannon in middle of street. Interview spectators. Interview participants dressed in Redcoat uniforms. Nearly have heart attack when cannon blast catches me by surprise. Ears ringing while writing gives inspiration for “fancy” story.

Write notes column. Feeling inspiration from fancy event coverage, write notes column fancy also.

6 p.m. meet friends at Pensacola Beach for beer/jokes/stories from the week. Laugh, smile, sit.

Two days off, then we do it again.

Journalism.


Stirring up trouble.

May 4, 2009

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So I’ve been stirring up trouble recently.

I spoke in a panel discussion for young aspiring journalists at a middle school a week or so back. Also attending was Grace White from Channel 3, and a couple of state-level education types.

It went about as well as something can at 9 a.m. I cracked a few jokes, (in my typical crude humor) and the kids seemed to enjoy it. Several hung around to talk with me afterward. Never underestimate the power of quasi-profanity when talking to middle-schoolers.

So sticking with that trouble-maker theme. I drove to Eglin AFB, three times the following week. The goal was to get up close and personal with this:

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The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was making its first-ever stop at Eglin, and I was on the list to get up close and personal with it.

But, as is often the case with things I’m involved in, it was a fiasco.

Tuesday was a bust. The super high-tech fighter broke down in Texas, and I drove back to Pensacola without a story.

The second day I got wise, and decided to wait until the plane took off on its two-hour flight, then race down the highway in an attempt to beat it to Eglin.

Poor decision #1: Trying to beat a fighter jet in a race.

At about 1 p.m., I got the call, and I hauled. The gamble paid off (barely), and me and the little war-hammer Honda made it to Eglin just in time so see it land.

I don’t have a decent long lens, so after a couple of lackluster photos of the landing, I started thinking “blog,” and took a bunch of shots of my compatriots for later commentary.

Poor decision #2.

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The plan was to watch the landing, then do interviews with the pilots and get photos of the parked plane. But as I’m packing up my stuff to head over and check out the plane, an Air Force Colonel walks up. His expression does not look promising.

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Because the pilots had come in so late, they were running in to “crew rest” issues. All the photos and interviews would be postponed until the next day.

The editor is going to love this phone call….

I’ve got, like, three usable photos, and I don’t really like any of them. This is what ran on A-1.

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I stopped to pick up the paper while driving to Eglin the next day, and grumbled to myself when confronted with my mediocrity.

This time it’s serious.

When they take us to see a test flight, I’m thinking “wingtip vortices.”  When they take us to see its simulator, I’m thinking “panorama.” When they take us up to see the plane and interview the brass, I’m thinking, “I need to get away from this group and get some better angles.”

Poor decision #3.

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Within minutes of wandering from the group, my absence was noticed, I was tracked down, and the Lockheed lass above firmly reminded me that I was to remain with the group at all times.

Minutes later, all the journalists were placed back in the van, and carted off without ever really getting a chance to photograph the jet.

But my two-minute elope was all I needed. As I previewed the pictures during the drive off the base, for the first time in three days, I liked what I saw.

Poor decisions, FTW!

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