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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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…


Too cool. HDR is a new hobby.

April 12, 2009

I’m a bit of photo purist. I never really got into the whole HDR thing. But the more I think about it, the more it interest’s me as a photographer. It’s almost like having ISO1600 and ISO60 chilling together on the same roll of film, just waiting  around to be of use whenever they can.

So after a sailing trip got cut short this afternoon due to excessive wind, I made a handful of HDR images.

Nothing much, but pretty fun given how easy they are to shoot and produce.

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All you do is set AEB (auto exposure braketing) to shoot +2 0 -2, then import the three exposures into  a program called Photomatix.

It gives you some sliders to slide and you’re done.

I probably didn’t slide my sliders around just right. So far I’ve been tending towards making the photos look more realistic, but I may get away from that in the future.


FURLOUGH = extracurricular journalism

March 15, 2009

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The company that owns my newspaper, Gannett, decided that in order to avoid further layoffs, all employees had to take a one-week unpaid vacation.

This decree applied to all Gannett employees worldwide, regardless of how well their individual newspapers/media outlets were performing financially. I have a couple qualms with that reasoning, but I try not to think too much about it.

Being the model of responsibility, I took the opportunity to go to Universal Studios with my friend Irina, who was on spring break from UWF, and spend a ton of money. After a few days of that, I came back to Pensacola and had a sailing adventure with my friend, and fellow reporter, Rebekah.

So, taking a break from the typical semi-professional content of this blog, I’m going with the theme of furlough and posting up some of my time off the clock.

First off: The sailing.

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The weather Saturday was dismal — thunderstorms and heavy wind. I kept a close eye on the radar and saw an opening where the rain cleared for a couple hours. Rebekah was down, so we went for it.

The wind and the waves were still huge; way bigger than any I’d ever sailed in.

Being super-reporters, we take a video camera along, but we really don’t put a lot of work into getting decent video.

But liberated from the bounds of news-style video,  I went a different route during editing… Artsy/fartsy.

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And then their was Universal.

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While waiting in line for this coaster, they told everyone to put away their electronic gadgetry. But some shots are too cool to pass up.

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And some of the rest…

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So with an empty bank account and a farmer’s tan, I’m headed back to work on Tuesday. Despite the naysayers, there are at least a couple perks to working in a dying industry.



The real question…

January 10, 2009

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Nine a.m.

My work cell phone rings in the next room, but I don’t hear it. I’m passed out on the couch and my shift doesn’t start until 1 p.m.

A couple minutes later it rings again. I hear it this time, but by the time I trip over my dog and stagger into my office, I missed the call.

As I wipe the sleep out of my eyes and try to figure out who called, my personal cell phone starts ringing on my coffee table.

“Uh oh.”

It’s the breaking news editor. House fire in a little town 20 miles north. Two dead. Fire department is still on scene. Hustle.

I slide into dirty pair of pants and a clean shirt, pull a baseball cap over my greasy hair and head out the door. As I turn around to lock the deadbolt, I watch my dog jump on to the couch to lay on my warm spot.

It’s raining. It’s that kind of heavy mist that coats the windshield even when the wipers are on high. I start driving north while poking the address I scribbled on the back of my hand into the iPhone. I call the editor to tell him I’m on my way.

Thirty minutes later I’m at the end of a soggy red dirt road lined with fire trucks and one of those sticker-covered mini-SUV’s that TV news people drive.

A clean shaven guy with hair sprayed hair is in the road up ahead with a cameraman interviewing a guy on a four-wheeler. I walk through the background of their shot and slow for a couple steps with only slight malice.

I get to the scene. Chat with a fireman named Lt. Dan. Find some neighbors standing in the rain in their back yard.

They’re looking at the fire trucks, the scorched house and two wrinkled white body bags laying side by side in the grass.

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They’re sad, shaken up, and emotional — but also excited in that peculiar way people are after they witness movie drama in real life. Nervous laughter occasionally cracks through their solemn expressions. Sadness turns to anger, then back.

Most folks rarely experience that state of mind. News people see it almost every day.

The pages in my notebook soak up rain along with the quotes, and ink bleeds across the paper as I work. One man ran into the burning house while wearing his wife’s robe to try to save the elderly couple inside.

He did his best, but it wasn’t enough.

He’s my lede. I know it even as his words smear across my notepad.

I grab the cell phone and call the breaking news editor with an update. Names. Times. Numbers. A little bit of color — it was a white house. The couple was found in the bedroom but not in bed. The neighbors had a little dachshund named Hanna.

Thirty minutes in the car to the newsroom. Fire up the computer and upload a couple photos to the server. Flip through the soggy notebook. Start to type the story.

The police scanner lights up with several voices. A wreck. The interstate. Fire. Entrapment.

A photographer heads out the door. I keep typing for a few minutes as the editors call other reporters at home. No answer. No answer. The scanner continues to sing. When we can wait no longer, I grab the camera, a couple pencils and an intern, and head back into the rain.

The intern is a senior at UWF. Pretty sharp, but quiet. It’s her first real day working for the paper. She spent the morning covering a farmer’s market.

The fire is out by the time we pull onto the shoulder of the interstate behind the sticker-covered SUVs. White foam blows through the air and between the fire trucks. Seventy degrees outside in January…that foam is the only snow we get in Florida.

It’s funny what thoughts go through your head — what catches your attention when you spend every day seeing all kinds of crazy things. I noticed the foam before I noticed the charred remains of the 18-wheeler it was used to extinguish.

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The driver didn’t make it. Slid off the road and crashed into some trees. Burned in the rig. The highway patrol investigator laughs when I ask him if they pulled any ID off the body. No way. Barbecue. It’s gruesome.

The intern stands close by as I ask the standard questions. Give the FHP investigator my e-mail. Make a fishing joke with the fire Lieutenant. Snap some photos of the carnage. Scribble some notes. Call in the numbers. Head for the car.

It’s quiet for a few minutes on the ride back to the newsroom. Then she turns to me.

“Is this, like, standard accident coverage for you?”

“Yep, pretty much.”

Much later, after the stories were filed, and the scanner was silent, my thoughts wander back through the day. Through the names, faces, and flames that I put down as words on the page.

I wonder what she was really asking.


new year’s resolution

January 7, 2009

To talk to people no matter what. Even when it’s scary.


I have arrived!

January 4, 2009

Forget getting picked up by the wire services. Forget being called by people at other newspapers. Forget having the TV news people ask you for scoop on a story.

Today I discovered that I have arrived.

Wikipedia quoted me.

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Next up, the Pulitzer…