By Erica Bustinza, LABB outreach volunteer and Tulane International Development graduate student
As time passes each trip to the Gulf Coast grows more intense. While the severity of the tragedy increases, the effects of the oil leak worsen and more people, shorelines and wildlife are affected. As a community outreach volunteer for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, we are promoting the organization’s Crisis Map and giving locals the opportunity to report the impacts the crisis is having on their lives and communities. The island is vulnerable as it is a barrier island positioned between the site of the Deepwater Horizons catastrophe and land formation.
Arriving at the marina, my partner Ariane and I spoke to several people stationed at a pavilion near a dock. We found out that there were several organizations that were working together on bird rescue including the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, International Bird Rescue, volunteers from the Louisana Audubon Society, and several hired by private companies (including British Petroleum). The first person I approached immediately responded that he was not permitted to divulge any information whatsoever because he is under a “gag order from BP”, but he did redirect me to the leader of the operation. We spent the next 90 minutes conversing with those returning on boats as well as those awaiting their arrival. During that time period about six boats came back with boxed or caged birds and sea turtles. The birds were taken to a staging area to be cleaned and then rehabilitated. We were not permitted in the staging area but did see oil soaked boxes and heard attempts at flapping inside.
At one point the skies opened and everyone crowded towards the center of the small shelter, perhaps 13 of us at that point. As a boat came in during the deluge, the box did not hold up and I was able to witness a brown blob placed from a net, to the dock, to a cage, all while leaving an oily trail. It was almost unidentifiable at first, but was told it was indeed a pelican, followed by two small seagulls. I overheard one International Bird Rescue worker state that they had saved about 20 birds in a four hour span. This rescuer also stated that, “in six weeks they are still failing at booming the islands,” and that the boom is both insufficient and not always strategically placed for protection of land and wetlands. Huddling together during the rain unified my partner and I with the group and some who were previously skeptical of our motives accepted us and were more willing to share their experiences. One rescuer was brought to tears after recounting to Ariane the magnitude and tragedy of the disaster she had just witnessed while on the boat. Another worker contracted by BP first told me he could not speak with me, but slowly began opening up about what he had seen while out on the water. With glazed eyes he shook his head, “I don’t even know what to say. It’s f***ed up. The smell, the animals, that’s crude oil you know. It’s so f***ed.”
Later while having lunch at the Starfish Restaurant, still reeling from an intense morning, the enormity of the crisis was again illustrated during a conversation with our server. While detailing the anticipated affects on the community, she said something I had not yet heard, “We are finally realizing that we are going to have to leave.” This was a powerful statement as it came from someone in a community that constantly rebuilds themselves. Storm after storm, they keep fighting for their land, homes, livelihoods, culture and identity. After years of successfully preserving their way of life, it is this man-made tragedy that is causing them to consider surrendering and moving on.
Unfortunately, eye-opening moments such as these will only continue to grow more frequent for those residing on the Gulf Coast.