Tuesday, September 9, 2008

the big spill

Now that we've gotten past the evacuation, it's time to try and catch up on some of the stuff I missed posting all summer! The following was written by Brennan Dougherty, our Community Gardening manager:

The Oil Spill

Early in the morning of July 23rd, two barges collided in the Mississippi River near the French Quarter of New Orleans - one barge was freshly loaded with No.6 fuel oil. Unknown amounts of oil were spilled into the Mississippi River, the worst spill the river has seen in over 10 years. Estimates say that 280,000-400,000 gallons of oil were deposited into the river, a mere 140 barrels removed safely. On the 30th, 1200 more gallons leaked from the sunken barge. The smell of oil was strong along the banks of the levee near the Lower Ninth Ward. We heard from people who were in the French Quarter that fumes were making them dizzy and exacerbating symptoms for asthma sufferers.

I heard about the spill by phone, on the way home from a meeting of the Lower Ninth Ward Urban Farming Coalition, a newly organized group of individuals and organizations committed to creating a sustainable system of food security for the neighborhood. By the reaction of the caller, I assumed someone had been greatly hurt. When I heard it was a spill, I barely reacted. I had been wondering if I am becoming desensitized to tragedy since I’ve been down in New Orleans for the past seven months. Everyday I walk past homes still standing, barely in many cases, and hardly notice. Where it was once an overwhelming sight and threw my heart in many directions, I now just walk on normally, stepping over the asbestos on the sidewalk.

So I acknowledged the spill as being something I had never heard about before - at least not so close to home, but didn't make it to the levee for another two days to have a look. Then I received another phone call from the girl who had informed me of the spill. Some folks were forming a group to observe and throw together some kind of renegade oil spill clean-up crew. (At least that’s what I imagined it would be.) We met up, roughly 12 of us, and spoke about the effects of the spill and what we could do to help clean up. A man came who has devoted his life to researching a method of cleaning up heavy fuel oil. "Human hair is the best material for the absorption of oil" Relatively unbelievable, I thought. He donated some of these sterile hair mats, made from the bits of hair that are left over in wig production. At that point, we were hoping to drag the hair mats near the banks of the Mississippi and soak up the oil ourselves. We also decided to start compiling an informative newsletter for the neighborhood. The plan was to monitor the clean up and talk to as many people as possible to get the real facts. I decided the best thing I could do is be an observer, as the volunteer work I’m involved in on a day-to-day basis is beyond enough work as it is!

A few days later we decided to check out the banks of the river. Our first stop was Holy Cross, along the levee bank that borders the neighborhood some of us have called home for over 2 years, the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

It was worse than I imagined. The smell made me dizzy. One person just walked home. It was too much, and more than any of us had realized. Here we had given ourselves the motivation and slight arrogance that - "Yes, we're going to clean up the oil!" - but the reality was much harder to stomach. We traveled more along the river without much of a method. We found birds that were uncatchable and one that we could catch, but which was already far gone. We started fighting among ourselves. We were too late, some believed, and the cynicism started running deep. It’s all screwed now. What can we do? We don't have much money or gloves, any suits or training to help clean up. We don't have everyday to scope the river and try to save every bird. The day ended solemnly. Some attended the Coast Guard’s conference that spoke about the large effort they were to make for the banks of the river. I drove the cynic’s home.

Jonah and I, who work together closely on the gardening projects at lowernine.org, decided to make ourselves observers on some level- as much as we could spare it. The next day we decided to check the banks of Holy Cross, at the very least, and make sure they were cleaning things up. What we found then was harder. They were spraying the banks, making an effort to clean up, but we were still seeing distressed animals. We called the people who were assigned to deal with animals and were told someone would come out. We found a duck in bad shape, but still alive enough to make it impossible to catch. We saw another covered in oil, but even more alive somehow...

We hoped they would be taken care of, but felt it was out of our reach to help them. And it was. After an internet search and call to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service we learned that catching and rehabilitating oiled animals is a difficult task that requires experience, specific tools and facilities. When you find an animal covered in oil, its intestinal tract is harmed greatly and just the shock of being handled can be deadly. Wiping the oil from a bird in a non-temperature controlled environment can give it rapid hypothermia. We decided to let the experts do it instead. The day before, we purchased a map for a proposed intensive survey, following the spill up and down both banks of the river. We traveled south and stopped in as many locations as we could before the end of the working day. Holy Cross was by far the worst of the banks, but consistently we found evidence that the booms for catching the oil hadn’t been set early enough, or that the river traffic hadn’t stopped. The lower foliage of trees on the banks were caked in oil, like molasses, and there were rings showing just how much the water had come up and receded. There were rings of oil rocking on top of the waves brushing up against the bank. Jonah took notes, I took photos.

The Day Buffy Found Us

One day during the oil spill crisis, we had planned to maintain the prospective garden lots that we have scattered in the neighborhood. On a whim, Jonah suggest that we go back to check on the duck, to see if the wildlife people had come to catch it or not. Three feet from the last spot we had seen the duck, there it lay, its final resting spot near an oil-rimmed tree. We walked the rest of the shoreline and saw another duck alive and swimming in the oily water that was still brushing along the shore. There was no way we could catch it. We called U.S. Fish and Wildlife. They advised us to pick up the duck, bag it and put it on ice until someone could retrieve it the next morning. We had heard that No.6 fuel oil was strong enough to melt most plastics, but learned that the volatile content (fumes/chemicals that could melt plastic) was mostly gone at that time, having been carried into the air.
Jumping back in the oil fueled car, we sped to the store and got heavy duty neoprene gloves (also made from oil), bags (again, plastic) and Dawn dish soap for cleaning, in case we could catch the living duck. We returned to Holy Cross and placed the fragile body, nearly the color of the sky, into the bag. I knew it had to be the same duck. It hadn't gotten very far.

We were walking back to the car when we turned and saw a beautiful blonde pit-bull trotting towards us. Her skin was clinging to her bones, and although it looked like she might be nursing, we couldn;t be sure, and her feet were black!
We lured her closer to us. I was nervous, nearly frantic, wondering if she would come or not. As she got closer we saw oil in spots all over her body. She came calmly and won us over with her sweet unbiased dog love. She was untagged, but seemed like she knew the place. I didn't know what to do. I called our friends who were in the group of volunteers we had organized for the survey, and they said they would come out to see. Luckily (ha!) we hadn't dropped off the clothing donation that was bagged up in the back of the vehicle. We devised a leash out of a t-shirt and tried to clean her feet. She was impatient, hot and hungry, so we went on a little walk. She and I sat in the shade. The t-shirt was nearly breaking. I pulled my favorite bandanna from my pocket and wrapped it around her neck. It looked great with her beautiful blond hair. Mama and I walked back to where Jonah was sitting by the car. We again cleaned her feet and gave her water. It was nearly 100 degrees- she was hot, we were hot - but mindlessly nervous. By the time the group arrived, the bulk of the black was gone but it had worked its way into every detail of her feet. The nails were lined with it, between the toes and all. She had a spot on her nose, and kept licking it, spots on her teats, her neck, and her body. She snuggled in under the car for shade. Another girl and I kept cleaning the details of her feet with dish soap. A strange truck approached us and said "Buffy! What you doin' out?" It was her owner. He told us he lived just at the base of the Wharf and she must have gotten loose. We cleaned her as best we could and returned her home to find her eight darling puppies jumping around the back of a pick-up truck. Our visit had turned into hours and the day was nearly over.

Jonah, Tariq (a volunteer from Palestine) and I returned to Holy Cross a couple days later to see about the clean-up and the living duck we had seen a few days before. We walked the banks of the river carefully, so as not to sink in that Mississippi mud or get covered in the oil that was now settling. Jonah screamed. I rushed to see if he was OK. Midway, I found the second duck, its black body blending into the oily shore. I screamed back.

Jonah was knee deep in the mud. Tariq looked at the duck for a moment, walked away, but then helped me put it into the bag. Both of us stood detached and matter-of-fact about the whole thing. I watched his eyes closely, seeking some kind of reaction. Then I remembered that this was fairly minor in comparison to the many, far greater injustices he has been put through in his life, the friends and family that have died in front of those eyes. My eyes are new to death. I have a wonderful friend in the Marines. He was in Iraq for the invasion in 2003, freshly out of boot camp, and even remains there today. He had beautiful eyes, bluer than you can imagine, goofy and playful. When I saw him in late 2004 they had grown darker in color. They were older, had seen more, and only gave you as much as they wanted you to see. They were guarded and strong, desperately compassionate for short moments at a time. Tariq’s eyes seemed the same. We sat out on the wharf and watched the orange oil booms set to contain the spill and the oil brushing over them from the waves from remaining river traffic. I commented arrogantly on the pure aesthetic value of the oils irridescence. He said plainly, “There is nothing beautiful about that.” He’s right.

The weeks have passed now and the banks of Holy Cross are as clean as the Coast Guard is going to get them. I keep searching for a day to travel south again and follow up on the clean up, to hold people accountable. Work has been overwhelming as most of our long-term volunteers say goodbye, some after a few months and others after years. The load never gets lighter without them, just spreads across fewer, sometimes fresher backs.
Work always presses on and new, exciting events take place in the neighborhood. We set out with a wily crew from New York to pass out flyers for the Sankofa Marketplace, a market filled with art, health clinics, live music, farmers, and snowballs, that staple New Orleans treat . When we all met up again, one group told me they thought they found a duck. And they had. Duck Number 3, as it came to be known in my head. Nothing was more gruesome than this duck. The head was a foot from the body and the flesh was being consumed by maggots. It was pretty far gone. Somehow, though, it wasn't any worse than the first time. The sight was awful - for a moment you're nearly gagging - but the tragedy is not the same.

Things are more distant, less infuriating, though you know that those responsible don't have to witness these things. Somehow we're able to joke about the "duck hunting" and the journeys it’s carried us on. But I fear for my being desensitized. It makes me question my sanity. Have I lost it? What am I gaining, maybe? What have I learned? Is this growth or regression? Will much surprise me anymore? Then again most of the questions fade with time and I get by on the day to day. People I learn to love come and go and sometimes I barely notice. The touch of gray to being a long-term volunteer?

(The Department of Fish and Wildlife eventually came and got Duck #3, and got more help. When we first contacted them, they had one person staffing the spill office, and three volunteers. Their numbers are now 30 and they have rescued 60 or more animals affected. To the credit of the Coast Guard, we did find clean-up crews out, even in remote areas. The question that still stands, though, is when do you decide you have cleaned up enough?)

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