by Jackie Orr
Remember how we asked you to send us pictures of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Along with the photos that landed in our mailbag, we received messages from people who had traveled down to coastal Louisiana and seen the devastation firsthand. After reading through their compelling stories, we decided to share some here on the blog.
In this post, Jackie Orr, a professor and published author based in New York, tells us her recollections of a journey she took through southern Louisiana several weeks after the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
Murals like these, photographed by the author in a small town in southern Louisiana, capture some of the raw emotions felt by Gulf Coast residents reeling from the spill (Source: Jackie Orr)
The drive from New Orleans to Grand Isle, Louisiana is only 110 miles, but it takes me five hours in the rental car. I am on a trip to see the invisible, to try to get an all-too-quick flash of cultural and political insight into the disaster unfolding along the Gulf Coast.
My desire to visit the island is both selfish and sociological. I’ve just turned 50, and despite my reservations about oil fumes and the content of spill news coverage, I want to spend this milestone close to a stretch of water and land that I can’t stop thinking about. I’m in the business of observation and commentary, and as the two-month anniversary of this branded disaster (the “BP spill”) approaches, I want to understand some of the social complexity absent from national media accounts of the catastrophe.
Fueled with gas from a local Tobacco Plus station, our rental car zips down the highway. We’re now within an hour of Grand Isle. As I get nearer to the gulf, I am engrossed by the surface images. All around, my eyes capture terribly visible evidence of the intimate entanglement of rural poverty and oil industry power in this lush semi-tropical landscape.
Here, in the southern Louisiana bayous, the signs of economic struggle and uneven infrastructural maintenance are everywhere. The abandoned Exxon Mobil station with a big U.S. flag draped across an empty office window. The sagging sheds with spray painted signs of local business scrawled on the side (“Sheila’s Notary”, “Shrimp & Crabs”). And then there’s the beautiful, angry mural art. In the parking lot of a tattoo shop, I see “BP, You Killed Our Gulf, Our Way of Life,” next to a sculpture of a man in a gas mask and a small girl with fists raised, cradling a sign reading “God Help Us All!” That is when the drive slows down, interrupted every half mile to jump out of the car and photograph another startled image of southern Louisiana’s face, lush and abandoned, ravaged and industrialized.
A bridge for the 21st century, framing a trailer built for the 20th: Constructed to withstand hurricanes and floods, the sleek causeway linking Grand Isle with the mainland stands high above an elevated home resting on supports in the foreground (Source: Jackie Orr)
The most dramatic intersection of environmental decay and multi-billion dollar industry appears as we near Grand Isle. A surreal expanse of causeway rises up out of the scattered wetlands. The sleek, four-lane highway bridge towers over rotting buildings buckling toward the ground in a post-Katrina, post-industrial swoon. It is like a scene out of science fiction, as the oil industry and local officials develop 21st-century transportation structures to work around a landscape destroyed by 20th-century mismanagement. It's as if the human and the environmental toll can be packed away and forgotten if it is tied up in a ribbon of concrete and asphalt. What kind of trick is this, this attempt to live ‘beyond’ the scale of man and nature? How fitting and how fearful to be delivered to the small stretch of Grand Isle by the sweeping curves of a hyperreal, high-tech causeway, one that seems to float above the ravaged coastal marsh.
I arrive on Grand Isle just as the sun is going down. It’s a short walk from the motel across the road to the Gulf Coast beach. Already two Greenpeace activists staying at the motel have warned that people are being arrested for walking on the beach. So I approach slowly, climb up the small sand dune past the hand-written sign “Beach Closed.” With a weird shock, I see the vista in front of me. Military jeeps line up along the coastline as work spotlights are raised by men and women in military camouflage. Yellow booms are laid across a beach studded with bright blue Porta-Potties spaced every forty yards or so as far as the eye can see. A storm comes in from the southeast with gorgeous layers of purple-grey clouds piling on top of each other. It takes some time, kneeling in the sand, before I start to see the oil rigs, dozens of rigs visible on the horizon. The Gulf of Mexico is a liquid field of oil rigs.
Line in the sand: Stretched all along the beach, a yellow boom rests on the southern shore of Grand Isle. In the distance, an oil rig looms on the horizon (Source: Jackie Orr)
But I don’t see the oil until hours later, after dark, when I return to the beach just before midnight to cross over the yellow boom. On the other side, I start to see the pools of oil, mirroring moonbeams and the light of military flood lamps. Pools the size of rowboats are found up and down the beach. Their consistency is that of a thick sludge, as I find when I run a stick through a shallow one. The wet sand itself feels sticky under my feet as I near the water’s edge. There are no images here, in the dark, just the sound of the ocean coming and going. All at once, I imagine the huge plumes of oil moving beneath the water’s surface, unseen in the murky depths.
In the sunlight the next day, as the national media search for oil-soaked birds continues (“Day 50, and only two oiled pelicans recovered by my count, Tom”), the oil-steeped history of Grand Isle becomes at least partially visible. Driving the short seven miles from one end of Grand Isle to the other, I discover the enormous Exxon Mobil plant that stretches almost a mile along the island’s northern edge. To many here, the presence of the oil industry in southern Louisiana remains an organizing, reassuring force, especially when juxtaposed with the chaotic lockdown of the coast. Offshore and onshore, the transnational energy majors are deeply embedded in local landscapes of labor and profit. Everyone knows someone who works in the plant or works on a platform. This is the realm of King Oil, and even in this landscape of destruction, cleanup crews and public officials seem to tiptoe about like interlopers. I speak with two workers from central Minnesota, brought down by BP to staff their company’s sand sifting equipment. Despite the militarized look and feel of things, they report that “nobody, absolutely nobody knows what’s going on.”
Sitting a lawn chair (made with petroleum-based plastic?), I collect my thoughts. How can we comprehensively address the environmental destruction wrought by BP and others without ignoring the complex ways that places like Grand Isle depend deeply, sometimes desperately, on the oil industry? How can we point fingers and how can I chronicle this oil spill when my journey to tell this story required a jet-fueled plane flight from New York City and a trip in a rental car gassed up in southern Louisiana? Can we possibly ignore the importance of Gulf Coast oil in our domestic energy mix? With this enormous well still spewing oil, how can we fathom that what’s happening in the Gulf and on the shores of Grand Isle is only part of a larger disaster that’s been unfolding for decades?
In visible and invisible ways, the oil industry is part of the everyday infrastructure of our lives, whether we live in New Orleans or New York. By the shores of the Gulf, I see, feel, and know that their coastal spill is our collective disaster.
Jackie Orr is a performance theorist and an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University. She teaches and writes about cultural politics, contemporary power, and the history of U.S. militarization. Her book, Panic Diaries: A Genealogy of Panic Disorder, examines the cultural effects of individual and collective terror.