In the Path of the Oil

In the little fishing village of Bayou La Batre, Ala., maybe 10 miles from where I now live, the old-timers like to tell stories about the storms. These are mostly unembellished tales, some of them handed down for generations, about hurricanes roaring in from the Gulf. Nancy McCall, a veteran community activist in the Bayou, remembers growing up in a Baptist church where the minister, Will Prichard, would preach sometimes about a vision that came when he was still young.

It was just before the storm of 1906, and God appeared to Prichard in a dream, telling him he needed to move from his home. The preacher obeyed, and when the winds came ashore a few weeks later, the tidal surge from the deadly hurricane swept away the house where he had lived. The worst part was that others didn’t get the warning, and the image that stayed with Prichard through the years was of mothers and babies in the tops of pine trees. Some were alive, clinging to the limbs that saved them from the flood, while others had drowned, their bodies wedged between the branches by the water.

“He would cry, even in the pulpit, when he told that story,” says Nancy McCall. “He could never get that picture from his mind.”

A shrimp boat returns to harbor in Bayou La Batre, Ala., where family businesses were still struggling to rebound from Hurricane Katrina before the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.
A shrimp boat returns to harbor in Bayou La Batre, Ala., where family businesses were still struggling to rebound from Hurricane Katrina before the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Such stories are a staple all across the Gulf Coast, a place where residents freely acknowledge that life on the edge of the continent is hard. But there’s a different feeling in the air these days. The old salts will tell you that the hurricanes come and the hurricanes go, requiring resilience of those who survive. Now, however, there’s the BP oil spill, by far the worst in U.S. history, and for all of us living here on the water, there is a fear of devastation that could last for decades.

“It’s like a monster that’s out there,” says Bayou La Batre Mayor Stan Wright.

For some of us, the stakes are first of all aesthetic. We love the pelicans and the great blue herons, the cypress trees and the white sand beaches, and that haunting, subtle beauty of the marsh. Now, suddenly, the images of oil-soaked birds and deep red stains in the sawgrass savannah are themselves enough to break people’s hearts. But the damage, of course, goes deeper than that. Bob Shipp, a marine biologist at the University of South Alabama where I teach, has spent his career studying both the ecosystem and the coastal way of life it supports. He knows the shrimpers and charter boat captains, the oystermen and blue-collar families in the seafood shops, and as the oil slick spreads across the northern Gulf, he is not optimistic about their future.

There is, most immediately, the killing of the animals—the fish and shrimp, oysters and crabs—that remain at the heart of the coastal way of life. Almost certainly, there are bad times ahead. But the deeper worry for Shipp and other scientists has to do with the habitat, the estuaries and coastal marshes where 80 percent of the marine species spend at least part of their lives. “If the oil coats the sea-grass blades,” says Shipp, “it’ll do some damage, but the grass will snap back. But if it gets in the sediment and kills the roots, then it will be years.”

There is also the deep-water counterpart to the marsh. Some 20 miles or more offshore, vast beds of sargassum, or floating seaweed, serve as a nursery for the eggs and juveniles of more than a hundred species of fish. With the oil slick already lapping at the marsh and drifting inexorably toward the seaweed, the potential for long-term damage is vast—made worse, many say, by BP’s massive use of dispersants.

Immediately after the April explosion that killed 11 workers and unleashed a gusher at 5,000 feet, the company began to spray Corexit, a toxic chemical that breaks up the oil and causes it to sink. In early May, Shipp and fellow scientist George Crozier, director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, met with BP officials to argue against the use of the dispersant. The meeting did not go well. The BP scientists, as Shipp later told the Mobile Press-Register, didn’t want to hear about the dangers of sunken oil or the long-term threat to the Gulf’s food chain. “When we started talking about the sediments and the food web,” Shipp said, “they just turned off.”

With such stories making their rounds on the coast, there is, as I sit down to write, a palpable intermingling of anger and despair. In Louisiana, where the damage so far has been the worst, people often struggle to put it into words. “You can’t sleep no more, that’s how bad it is,” John Blanchard, an oyster fisherman, told Bob Herbert of The New York Times. “My wife and I have got two kids, 2 and 7. We could lose everything we’ve been working all of our lives for.”

What Blanchard and others find hard to explain is that they have been part of an ancient bargain, dating back as long as people can remember. Avery Bates, an oysterman in Bayou La Batre, who saw his community devastated by Katrina, then slowly rebuild, was sustained like many of his neighbors, he says, by the fundamental logic of what he was doing. As Bates understood it, the bounty of the sea was always there, offering a good and honorable living, with rewards that were roughly equal to your work.

“You’re part of a heritage going back for generations,” says Bates. “You sweat hard, but you know why you do it. You’re feeding your family and the people around you. You know you’re a part of something worthwhile.”

But now many people on the Gulf Coast believe something fundamental has been lost. They know the story of Prince William Sound—how the oil that spilled from the Exxon Valdez killed off whole populations of herring, and how, more than 20 years later, thousands of gallons can still be found in the coastal sediments of Alaska. And today on the Gulf, even the old-timers who are used to the struggle—the summer hurricanes, the seasons when the harvests are thinner than normal—say they don’t know what will happen next.

“This whole thing could shut us down,” says Billy Parks, who runs a seafood shop in Bon Secour, Ala. “I’ve been here for 35 years selling seafood fresh out of the Bay and Gulf. My grandfather did it before me and then my dad. I could get frozen, imported seafood and sell it, but that’s not what I do. They’re out there trying to make billions of dollars a year, and they put us all at risk. I’m praying and trusting God to take care of us, and I believe he will. I put it in his hands. If it puts us out of business, I’ll do something. I don’t know what, but something.”

For Parks and many others, that’s all that seems to be left at the moment: some hybrid of fatalism and faith, as the poisonous scar of BP oil spreads slowly, inevitably across the Gulf.

Frye Gaillard, BA’68, lives on Mon Louis Island just south of Mobile, Ala., where he grew up. From 1972 until 1990 he lived in North Carolina and worked for The Charlotte Observer. His first book, Watermelon Wine, published in 1978, was a collection of essays about country music. Since then Gaillard has authored or co-authored more than 20 books, most concerning politics, race relations and contemporary Southern culture. In 2005, Gaillard returned to Alabama and became writer-in-residence in the history and English departments at the University of South Alabama. In the late 2000s he began working with singer-songwriter Kathryn Scheldt, whose album Southern Girl contains 10 songs co-written by him.

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