Trees and plants always look like the people they live with, somehow.
-Zora Neale Hurston in Seraph on the Sewanee (1948)
If someone told me that there could be any ecological disaster that could dwarf Hurricane Katrina—and the gross presidential mismanagement in its wake — I would have been highly skeptical. Of course, that was before the April 20’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion — and the Obama administration’s handling of it.
And I know there are those who say I’m being too hard on President Barack Obama. Moreover, Obama’s defenders say this is a disaster that has been decades in the making. And who can deny the incestuous relationship between “big oil” and the previous administration, which was headed by the two oil men, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney? Halliburton has even been cited as a player in this debacle.
But here’s the thing: This unprecedented “accident” happened on Obama’s watch —and so far his administration has performed abysmally. But, I’ll come back to that.
For now, I want to try to convey the magnitude of what is being lost down on the Gulf Coast, perhaps forever.
“Sportsman’s Paradise” Lived
Growing up in Louisiana, I often wondered what “Sportsman’s Paradise” meant. After all, I read this appellation on our state license plates daily. I wondered why we didn’t have a more colorful, concrete nickname like, say, Florida’s The Sunshine State.
Sure, I knew “Sportsman’s Paradise” had something to do with the outdoors. And although I am now a proponent of gun control, Lord knows, the men in my family love to hunt (or at least they did). And, it was not lost on me that Louisiana boasts some of the best fishing in the world. After all, my hometown is Lake Providence, where I resided on the Bayou Road.
Still, it never dawned on me back then that the Sportsman’s Paradise moniker crystallized my entire way of life. Indeed, some of my fondest memories are of freshwater fishing in the Mississippi River, in the lake for which my hometown is named, or in one of the dozens of “fishing holes” that dot East Carroll Parish, which is in the northeastern part of the state, part of the tri-state region called the ArkLaMiss.
This is to say nothing of the speedboat racing and waterskiing on the lake, which were well above my family’s station in life; even so, it was sure fun watching the wealthy Whites do so during the summer. Since my parents wouldn’t let us swim in the lake, the only time I remember being in the lake was as a 12-year-old when I was baptized.
And even though I can count on one hand the times that I have been to the southern part of the state, the seafood harvested from the Gulf was a staple in my family, as it is for the entire seafood industry, providing an estimated 70 percent of America’s oysters. Moreover, the Gulf of Mexico boasts one of the only sustainable wild shrimp habitats and fisheries in the world.
It is not hyperbole to suggest that this could all be lost, which is unimaginable, especially for one whose culture is irrevocably tied to this cuisine.
For instance, on special occasions, my mother would make the most delectable oyster po-boys, using loaves of melt-in-your-mouth French bread, sometimes home-baked by my father. And I still remember how she would make what had to be the world’s best shrimp-fried rice, using little bowls to mould the delicacy into uniform mounds. And don’t even mention the seafood gumbo, loaded with crab legs, shrimp and sometimes crawfish.
But sadly, it has taken a geyser, spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico — and a transnational oil giant, with seemingly no governmental oversight, spraying and pumping gallons of unspecified chemical “dispersants,” both aerially and 5,000 feet below the surface of the water — to make me fully understand what Sportsman’s Paradise means.
I never gave the wetlands and marshes a second thought. Until now, I never fully appreciated their beauty — or their sacred worth as an incubator for dozens of species of marine life and birds.
And speaking of birds, the pictures of oil-drenched brown pelicans, the Louisiana state bird, are enough to make the blood boil. This is what made me think of Zora Neale Hurston’s poignant observation about plants and trees being a reflection of the people they “live with.” Obviously, the same is true of birds, animals and the waters.
New Orleans resident James Carville, a staunch Democratic strategist, has described the Obama administration’s response to the Gulf Crisis as “lackadaisical,” insisting that the president has displayed “political stupidity” and naiveté by relying so heavily on British Petroleum (BP) to manage the crisis.
Carville, the “Ragin’ Cajun,” urged Obama to take action — starting with coming to the scene of the crime — because they’re “dying down here.”
Bigger Than Katrina
Part of the problem, as I see it, is that Team Obama initially tried to avoid taking ownership of the crisis, opting to just badmouth BP (which deserves it) and promising to “keep its foot on the neck” of the oil giant, as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar quipped.
But here’s the rub, this is the United States. As president, Obama — not BP — is charged with protecting America’s “bounty,” as he said last week during a news conference.
“Hardball” host Chris Matthews said on the “The Tonight Show,” “The president scares me. When is he actually going to do something? And I worry. I know he doesn’t want to take ownership of it. I know politics. He said the minute he says, ‘I’m in charge,’ he takes the blame, but somebody has to. It’s in our interest.”
I have even begun to wonder if scriptwriters have been brought in to manage the crisis. Staging and public relations, it seems, are the name of the game.
For example, Jefferson Parish City Councilman Chris Roberts is accusing BP of busing in 300-400 people, reportedly offered $12 per hour, to act as props for the Obama visit. They allegedly donned hazmat suits and simulated a massive clean-up effort for Obama’s fly-by photo-op in Grand Isle, departing shortly after the president left.
So far, BP denies this allegation — and no one has yet implicated the White House in this despicable scheme, although how could they not know about the alleged duplicity, assuming they are as “on top of things,” as they would have us believe?
And to listen to some of the names like “Deepwater Horizon,” “Operation Top Kill” and other action movie-type terminology, you halfway expect Will Smith to ride to the rescue in a heart-stopping climax worthy of a Fourth-of-July-released thriller. But this is not fiction, although I’m sure multiple docudramas are already in the works.
As it were, some have taken to calling the oil spill, Obama’s Katrina. Well, I disagree. This is far worse than Katrina.
And this is not to minimize the fact that well over 1,000 died and New Orleans was virtually destroyed. With the BP oil spill, however, who knows what the long-term environmental and health effects of this spill and the “dispersants” will have on those exposed to them, as a recent Washington Post article reports.
At least you can rebuild a city — if you are inclined to do so, which the federal government does not seem to be in the case of New Orleans but that’s another story.
With this oil spill, however, there is no end in sight. BP announced that the ballyhooed “Top Kill” method has failed and they are preparing for yet another likely futile attempt next week. Conceivably, the spillage could go on for months, until either a “relief” well is drilled or until the well runs dry, which could be up to 50 million barrels, according to BP spokesperson Jon Pack.
If the BP executive’s approximation is accurate, that means roughly 2.1 billion gallons of crude oil could make its way into the Gulf — almost 195 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill into Prince William Sound.
Time magazine reports that the spill threatens an “underwater rainforest,” as the oil lurks beneath the surface of the Gulf. A group of marine scientists from the University of South Florida, led by oceanographer David Holland, recently took their research vessel, the WeatherBird II, on a damage assessment expedition, primarily of the DeSoto Canyon, which is south of the Florida coast and about 20 miles north of the Deepwater Horizon gusher. What they found is heartbreaking.
“The DeSoto is to the Gulf what a rainforest is to a land-based ecosystem: a densely fertile area where life forms fairly explode. It’s the upwelling of nutrient-rich water that make the area so hospitable to fish, coral and other living things. On the surface, the waters of the region look clean, but just below the surface and down to about 3,300 feet (1 km), Hollander and his team found a six-mile (9.6 km) wide, 22-mile (35.4 km) long oil bloom, broken into millions of bits and beads and moving with the current. It had not reached the canyon yet, but it was heading that way.”
That is what is at stake here and no expense should be spared to stave off a complete disaster.
Mayday, Mayday … the Gulf of Mexico is Dying
In this instance, there are no sacred cows.
That is why I find Dr. Boyce Watkins’ article “Four Ways Obama Can Stop Oil Spill from Consuming his Presidency” offensive and shortsighted.
Watkins suggests Obama do four things: find a fall guy, the more the better; “become a certified tree hugger”; use a wag-the-dog strategy and create an international incident to distract the media with a bit of “Houdini-like misdirection”; and seize the moment and levy a huge fine against BP.
No amount of money can replace the Louisiana coastal ecosystem — or that of any of the other states that might be affected eventually: Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Florida. Ultimately, the Atlantic coast and the Caribbean could even be affected.
Into the bargain, hurricane season begins Tuesday — running through November — and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution serves up the following warning: “The predictions call for up to 23 storms of at least tropical storm strength. As many as seven are expected to be major hurricanes of at least Category 3 strength, with sustained winds of 111-130 mph. Five or more may threaten the U.S. coastline.”
Granted, we are in unchartered waters here — no pun intended — and no one seems to know what to do, but the last thing we should be worried about is protecting Obama who, so far, seems to be in way over his head, pun intended.
And we certainly don’t need trickery, as Watkins advises. I must state here for the record that I am not trying to pick on Dr. Watkins, but surely, in this instance, we can put politics aside.
That is the only way this government can mobilize the army that is needed to clean-up all the oil. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour says they are ready and waiting to protect their coastline.
But this raises the following questions: Why are they just waiting, as the Louisiana coastline is being defiled? Why don’t they help their neighbors who are facing this ungodly ruination, reportedly already having had over 100 miles of the Louisiana coastline “oiled”?
I don’t claim to have all the answers but I would recommend the following action plan for the American government:
Which Legacy, Obama?
Make no mistake, if this oil spill is not contained, Obama will forever be known as the commander-in-chief under whose watch the Gulf of Mexico — and everything in it — died.
This is definitely not a good look.
Going forward, if Obama wants to restore at least a modicum of confidence in his leadership in this area, he must form a governmental agency charged with research and development of renewable energy, as well as providing grants for promising inventors.
It is not enough to just say that we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, foreign and otherwise. This president should strive to place America at the forefront of this emerging technological arena, simultaneously resurrecting the American economy.
This is a legacy that he could be proud of — even if he serves only one term, which seems increasingly likely.
At the same time, Obama must limit deepwater drilling. To the extent that it is used, he must ensure that industry best practices are in place. For instance, Canadian law requires that a “relief” well must be drilled simultaneously with the exploratory well. If this were already American law, we would not now face the prospect of waiting for months while relief wells are drilled — while millions of gallons of crude oil continue to flow unabated into the Gulf of Mexico.
Finally, I have a whole drawer full of Obama T-shirts. If all else fails, I’m willing to donate them for the Gulf clean-up effort.
Dr. Pamela Reed is a diversity consultant, cultural critic and assistant professor of English composition & Africana literature at Virginia State University.
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