May 6, 2010
I went to Franklin, Tennessee for a visit that was supposed to end last Saturday, but I was marooned by flooding from the unprecedented deluge that pummeled this part of the country over the weekend. We got more than 15 inches in two days—a record high. The rain came stunningly fast and furious, buckets of water pouring down from the heavens. Within hours, dry creek beds became raging rivers. As a friend and I were driving from downtown Nashville at the start of the storm, it began to dawn on us that things were much worse than the prediction of “severe thunderstorms” might indicate.
Winds were gusting wildly, trees were toppling across roads, water was spilling over banks, asphalt was crumbling, and cars around us were stalled. We got to a dip in one street and saw a woman pacing back and forth, her hands folded in prayer in front of her face. A man just ahead of us had been told not to drive through the water spilling across the road, she said, but he had ignored the warning. “His car washed away. He’s hangin’ in the top of a tree, hangin’ on for dear life,” she said. “Pray for him. Please.”
I don’t know if he was rescued, or if he became one of the 24 people who died in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi when rivers flashed through towns, washed away cars, houses and commercial buildings, and buckled bridges. When I wasn’t watching the downpour or warily eying the creek behind my friends’ house, I was following the disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. Within a week, what had been described by BP as a containable spill coming from the sinking Deepwater Horizon rig had become three “leaks”—a maddening description.
What’s going on cannot possibly be called a leak, nor can it be called a spill. Leaks are gradual and spills imply the emptying of a container. Instead, what we have are underwater geysers of oil that are spewing rust-colored crude; and there is no known end to the supply. As of Monday, BP estimated that 210,000 gallons a day—five times the company’s original projection—were spilling into the Gulf’s tricky, frigid waters. The oil slick on the surface covers more than 1,800 square miles and Interior Department officials are estimating it may take 90 days to stop the flow if BP has to drill a “relief” well to intersect and cap the out-of-control well.
The weather has not been cooperating with containment efforts, which were slow off the mark. As of Wednesday, BP said 100 miles of floating booms had been laid out to keep the oil from spreading, but they were severely compromised, and outright destroyed in places, by winds and waves. Eighty percent of the booms protecting Alabama’s coast are damaged. Meanwhile, crews are spraying tens of thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants onto the oil to break it up into droplets that can sink to the bottom. We can only guess what havoc this will wreak on the Gulf floor; the chemical dispersants are of “low toxicity”—in other words, some toxicity—and have never been used before in such large quantities. The only sure thing is that the damage won’t be visible to the public eye.
The harm will be more visible, and devastating, to the fishermen whose livelihoods depend on Gulf waters. They’ve been called off their boats at the start of the season for many valuable species of fish, while NOAA tests sea life for contamination. What’s heartbreaking is that these are the very fishermen who recently responded to depleted stocks by becoming leaders in adopting new systems to manage their catch, with EDF’s help. Red snapper, grouper and tilefish have been coming back—and the fishermen have benefited economically. The fishermen themselves have become stewards of the Gulf. Unfortunately, not everyone working in the Gulf has been as conscientious.
Gulf life cannot compete against an enormous oil spill. When the oil reaches the wetlands, it can coat, suffocate and kill the grasses whose web of roots holds the marshes in place. Then all that will be left is mud, which will simply sink into the seawater. Marshes buffer the region from storm surges—unless the marshes are so depleted that they wash away. Normally, the marshlands would naturally replenish themselves with sediment that washes down the Mississippi River—except that sediment has been channeled away by levees built over the years to encourage sparse barge traffic. The costs of compromising these natural storm barriers became tragically evident during Hurricane Katrina. So today, barrier islands are sinking and disappearing into the Mississippi River Delta: nearly 25 square miles of critically important wetlands disappear every year.
EDF staff on the ground in Louisiana
to see the oil spill impact on the wetlands and local fishermen.
Sadly, the oil is gushing into the Gulf during peak nesting season: This area is prime breeding ground for countless sea turtles and birds such as the American oystercatcher, who lay their eggs in the sand. Millions of dollars, and countless years of work by EDF and other organizations have been poured, heart and soul, into restoring those vital but now imperiled coastal lands—for the sake of wildlife, and human life. Once again, we are reminded that we are dependent on one another. All that work may be washed away by gushing oil.
Meanwhile, in the peculiar ecosystem that is the political world of Washington DC, the fate of months of negotiations over a bipartisan clean energy/climate/jobs bill hangs in the balance. One of the central compromises made in the hope of the bill’s safe passage was the significant expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling. Now, that grand bargain is jeopardy.
What a strange and terrible confluence of events! I believe the disasters of this week will prove to be of profound significance. People in Tennessee are saying that they didn’t have a 100- year flood; they had a 250- year flood. What does that really mean? Now that the flood has happened, it won’t happen again in their lifetimes? Is that wishful thinking?
Let’s remember that climate scientists predict that one effect of global warming will be more extreme weather patterns: sudden severe flooding in some areas, and intense droughts in others. In other words: global weirding. I have a feeling there’s worse to come. Nature is unpredictable, as we can see from the constantly changing direction of the Gulf gusher.
It is way past time to connect the dots. Responsible climate scientists have been unequivocal: the burning of fossil fuels has contributed significantly to global warming. And global warming is dangerous. Then take into consideration the significant degradation we have visited upon our earth in harvesting those fossil fuels, with sloppy, irresponsible, and perhaps even cynical greed. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Gulf rig lacked a $500,000 remote control shut-off switch required by other major oil-producing nations as last-resort protection against underwater spills.
Humankind has been able to alter the course of something as unfathomably large as the climate. But we’re reminded, over and over again, that plain old weather can—and will—undo humankind.