Memorial Day, 2010
Some of the photographers in the press corps were starting to grumble. It was almost 9:30 in the morning and the light would be too flat by the time we made it out to the Gulf. In the lounge of Top Gun Aviation at the airfield in Hammond, Louisiana, about sixty miles north of New Orleans, we waited for the Coast Guard plane on leather chairs facing the runway, feet propped on matching leather ottomans. A freelance photographer from Alabama talked about what was going on in his state, efforts to protect Dauphin Island from the inevitable with a sand-berm barrier, something he said they try every year anyway to ward off erosion, and every year it gets washed away. We joked about how his governor had snatched up all of a certain type of polymer that turns oil into an easier-to-handle gelatinous solid, because he wanted to get it before the other governors did. Crises like this tend to turn Gulf Coast governors into squabbling siblings.
Coast Guard public-information liaison Larry Chambers, Petty Officer First Class, greeted us in a blue jumpsuit emblazoned with impressively wordy patches. The press corps, mostly in cargo pants, polo shirts, and baseball caps embroidered with their media affiliations, shuffled around in various attitudes of preparation, checking iPhones and gear in shoulder bags. When I mentioned to Chambers that I was a little concerned about the flight, since we’d driven through some storms coming in from New Orleans, he nodded and smiled sympathetically and then said, “You know, we’re the Coast Guard, we’re made for weather.”
Until he made that comment, I’d been kind of nervous about the flight but it reminded me that these were the guys and gals who’d rescued thousands of people after Katrina with such alacrity, dangling expertly from helicopters in the gusts of the rotors. Even though at the moment the Coast Guard command was being criticized for its response to the oil spill, for being too cozy with BP, after Katrina they had garnered a lot of well-deserved goodwill. Almost on cue, our transport arrived on the runway: a CASA HC-144A cargo plane, full-bellied with high wings, an upslanted rear, and enormous propellers. Crew technician Kevin Landry,1 an affable young man in glasses and an olive drab jumpsuit, passed around a cardboard box of earplugs and gave us terse, slightly weary instructions. “Stay out of the way of the propellers. When exiting the aircraft always turn left. Away from the propellers. And, please, listen to me. When I tell you to do something, just do it.” He opened the door of the air-conditioned lobby. The racket of those terrifying, man-size propellers had overtaken the tarmac, along with the rising end-of-May heat. Landry concluded, “And now please put in your earplugs.”
The inside of the cargo plane looked like a cargo plane, long seats along the gray quilted walls, orange nylon netting behind them, cave-dim with only four small windows—two in the front, two in the back—which were crowded with cameras for much of the flight. After an unceremonious, barely apprehended takeoff, people milled around the hold, taking out their earplugs to try to chat, jockeying around the windows, or asking Chambers questions. Some were just trying to catch up on sleep, as lord knows what time they had woken up or where they had driven from to make the plane. The engine’s clamor cultivated an air of both intimacy and isolation in the CASA—you either leaned in close to talk with the strangers around you or you stayed in your own buzzing head, fluorescent earplugs firmly in place.
After about half an hour in the air, I asked Chambers where we were, and he said we were headed south-southeast, about forty minutes from the site of the former Deepwater Horizon rig, where we would be able to see a lot of activity. That was news to me; I didn’t even know we were going down there, thought we were heading to the mouth of the Mississippi to Pass-a-Loutre, one of the areas where the oil had reached the wetlands, further blackening the edge of our collective despair.
I live and write and teach in New Orleans and wasn’t armed with journalistic objectivity or military directive. My friend Michel, an artist and photographer, had been working on a book about the wetlands for a few years now; I was writing an essay for it and had accompanied her on some of her shoots. After the BP blowout, the project, already a meditation on the loss of an essential and enigmatic landscape, took on an accelerated urgency. Since late April, Michel had been doggedly arranging boat trips and flights to document what was happening. And now here we were, headed to the actual source of the whole catastrophe, where apparently some bad decisions had been made, where eleven workers had died, where the region’s Battle for Our Future Part II erupted. Five years after Katrina, we believed we were on the brink of a new phase of the recovery, but suddenly we were thrown back into the culture of calamity. It was all so familiar—the four-pronged invasion of press, military, profiteers, and volunteers, and a brutal new vernacular, but instead of storm surges, gutting, and debris, we have blowouts, top kill, and junk shots.
Soon the crew began readjusting the only two independent seats in the back, which moved along a perpendicular set of tracks, and brought life rafts and other gear to the front of the plane, clearing the way to open up the loading ramp while we flew about six hundred feet over the water, so we could see out and the photographers and videographers could get an unimpeded view.
When the first two photographers were strapped into the now-back-facing seats with five-point harnesses, the rest of us standing expectantly behind them and the loose belt strung across the back of the plane like a police line, Landry made a hand movement to lower the cargo hatch. First, you could see just a line of the Gulf, bright and gleaming in the dusk of the hold, and as the CASA’s maw kept widening, suddenly there it was—that familiar composition of vessels, moored at different angles, stacked with various apparatuses and helicopter pads, what we’d been seeing for weeks, just right there in front of us, not on a screen, not in a newspaper: the new rigs, supply boats, skimmers with their “J” formation, and the boats that operated the sixteen scuttling and drilling and sawing ROVs, the top kill boats, the Discoverer Enterprise, which was sucking up a fraction of the oil and also preparing to lower a new custom-built cap onto the BOP (Blow Out Preventer) over the leak, the latest of the failed attempts to stop the blown-out well. And that was only the surface activity. The vast unseen and unseeable, except through the grainy transmissions of the ROVs, glimmered and stretched out beneath us forever with no shoreline in sight.
A painful obstruction of the throat and burning pressure behind the eyes. A weight dropping again and again in the chest. For the first several minutes I had to dig a fingernail into my thumb to keep from crying. One of the last times I’d experienced that kind of reaction was when I returned home and saw our ravaged city after Katrina. Every morning for the past few weeks, the newspaper’s headlines had percussively pounded out failure and blame, plans and doom. Looking down at the scene, surrounded by people with big camera lenses and little notebooks, the gear and the caps, something kind of flipped around inside my head—how we are beholden and grateful to the media, as we were in Katrina, but also, as in Katrina, we can be rendered passive, impotent-feeling nervous wrecks from large doses of the same coverage. And the image I found so immediate and stunning was actually itself framed by the dim machinery, the gray cranking power of the military, pleasantly and competently handled by these nice guys in jumpsuits. As we passed over the site, making sure everyone got their turn in the harnessed seats, technician Landry sat cross-legged on the back hatch looking out into the water, relaxed and contemplative, as though having a mellow hang on the end of a lonely pier.
In the water: the veiny, feathery red plumes. The mother-of-pearl sheen that sometimes covered the entire vista and which Chambers said can spread to just a molecule thick, making it difficult to capture. As he was explaining to me what the different boats were doing down there, he leaned in and said, “You know, every second we’re talking, the oil just keeps coming, gushing. More and more of it.” The badge dangling from his lanyard read incident commander and staff: information office/public affairs. “Is that your title?” I asked. The ID picture had the BP green and yellow starburst behind it with a barcode next to it. “Oh,” he said, “that’s my BP title; my real Coast Guard title is this,” and he showed me the patch on the arm of his jumpsuit: deployable operations group, national strike force public information assist team. “That barcode is how they keep track of us, the hours we work, where we are, like that.” It all seemed a little less sinister when he explained it was because BP was paying for everything, so they had to keep track of expenses, salaries, per diems, everything. At that point, BP was responsible for paying twenty thousand people on this operation. They paid for our little plane trip out to the Macondo well, the bottled water we were drinking out of the oversize fishing cooler, and maybe even the weak coffee back at Top Gun Aviation. Since the beginning there was concern about BP controlling and distorting information and flat out lying, and now there were accusations that BP was prohibiting access to people where they had no real authority to do so, assuming a sort of you-break-it-you-bought-it mentality. But Chambers said he was hurt that people were accusing the Coast Guard of not being helpful and forthcoming. “I’m beholden to the taxpayer,” he said, looking straight at me. “Not BP.”
After everyone had taken turns getting the shots they wanted, we left the site of the spill and headed northwest toward Pass-a-Loutre, where the Mississippi River fans out to empty into the Gulf. The slim tendrils of fragile, disintegrating land, the clean lines of the oil-containment boom around it. We watched how water dictates the form and path of the oil, like water has dictated the shape of the delta land over millennia. This delta is basically the result of competing desires of the Gulf and the river with man caught in between. The Mississippi actually wants the same thing most oil and gas and shipping companies want—the most efficient way to get to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s been trying for eons to find the path, and every few thousand years its mouth shifts a hundred miles or so, a process called delta switching, reconfiguring the landscape by dumping river sediment and building up land, creating lakes and barrier islands in the process. When the river gets too clogged with the silt and clay it’s been carrying down, it just moves over to create a clearer path, in its glacially capricious manner. The oil and gas and shipping companies take the opposite tack, cutting razor-straight channels through the meandering handiwork of the river, and have laid down more than nine thousand miles of pipeline, all of which sucks the salt water into the fresh water of the marshes, wreaking havoc on the ecology. Etched into the breathless panorama of nature’s eternal business of survival is man’s eternal business of messing things up.
The complexity of the issues in southeast Louisiana is mind-knotting. If you are not already ideologically aligned, you are liable to want to take sides with whichever impassioned, well-intentioned person you end up talking to. The residents who depend on fishing but probably even more so on the oil and gas industry, intertwined with their community over generations; the environmentalists who take a sometimes-unpopular long view; the politicians who still insist on trying to engineer our way out of this mess with enormously expensive and dubiously researched projects. In the end, it’s what we know of ourselves that makes us fight so hard for our culture, our families, our livelihoods, this coastline, that city.
As we headed back to Hammond, Landry was deep into a Chuck Palahniuk paperback and Chambers was being interviewed by a correspondent from a left-wing media outlet, the edge of her indignation buffed down by the general din. One of the other writers, a young woman from a national magazine, seemed to have become bolder throughout the flight, touching the crewmen’s shoulders as they talked, cocking her head toward them conspiratorially. Another writer said nothing to anybody, not even Chambers, just kept to himself and his spiral notebook, which made me even more curious about what he was taking in.
At one point someone was intently photographing a crewman silently looking out the window. Behind the photographer another crew technician walked by with a bemused smirk. I wondered if for every shot we see in the news of a serious serviceman gazing out at something, there’s a nearby buddy out of the camera shot preparing to give him some shit. The CASA is so thoroughly their territory—you’re just along for the ride. The uniforms and the gear separate us from their very particular culture, but these Coast Guard guys were so nice and professional that it never felt too intimidating in there. I was almost sad when the marsh below gave way to solid stretches of pine, signaling we weren’t long for landing.
On the ground, we exchanged business cards with Chambers, and he said with a concerned brow-furrow, “I hope you got what you needed.” That got me thinking—what did I need with all of this? The journalists and scientists and the government are supposedly sorting out facts and getting them out there. The cycling of fear and outrage and resignation is out there, easily accessible. My mom called as I stood in the parking lot; I had forgotten it was a holiday weekend. She didn’t know where I was or what I’d been doing. I felt a surge of guilty excitement to tell her everything, and I realized what a seductive thing it can be to witness something like that up close, to have a good story to tell. A videographer and journalist team loaded up their SUV and asked how long it would take to get over to Grand Isle.
On the drive back to the city, Michel talked about things I had been completely oblivious to during the flight—how the pilot followed the light and flew at an angle, compromising certain shots and helping others, how the long, heavy lenses that some of the other photographers used betrayed the kind of tight shots they seemed to be going for, ones that gave the illusion that the boats had things under control. She was more interested in contextualizing the enormity of the crisis, the wider story told by her wide-angle lens—the skimmer boats like water bugs with their skids trailing through the endless sheen, the desolate, smoky pillar of a burn-off in the distance. I envied her focus, the clarity of her vision, and the tangible testimony she was bringing back in her camera bag, so fully formed, nearly ready for sharing. All I had was a three-by-five notebook full of scrawl and a head full of conflict that would probably take weeks to unravel and reconstitute into something resembling a coherent reaction.
On the I-10 heading back into New Orleans, there’s an unmistakable delineation where swamp meets suburb. Miles of cypress and palmettos dead-end at a drainage canal at the St. Charles Parish line. On the other side of the canal, a solid concrete-scape of parking lots, unambitious office buildings, and motels suddenly flanks the highway. We crossed over and continued home, where the storms were still raking through the city between clear bursts of sunshine, complicating everyone’s weekend plans.