Oil makes landfall: My Friday in Louisiana

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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