For six weeks, before the call came, I'd been living with a rock in my gut. Living in a place surrounded by waterways, marshlands and beaches, watching on TV as a pipe 700 miles away spewed death day after day, and doing nothing because ... because those were someone else's waterways, marshlands and beaches?
So when the boss called, asking me to go to the Gulf Coast to write a story about the oil spill, I felt almost relieved. But then, being a sportswriter, I couldn't help myself. I asked, What's the connection to sports?
Sportfishing's dead there, he said. A multibillion-dollar industry, shot. I felt bad for all the people who depended on it for a living, but something about that angle—damn, now that hundreds of thousands of fish in the Gulf are getting killed by oil, nobody gets to kill tens of thousands of fish for the sport of it!—was unsettling. But my conscience was already snagged, so I took the hook and started packing.
Thirteen hours, the drive to New Orleans, the first hour spent remembering all the big moments that had taken me there. Like the Super Bowl in '81, the only time in my life I'd had to wait in line for an hour to get out of a restaurant, so choked was Bourbon Street with drunken, singing and chanting Eagles and Raiders fans that the door could not be wedged open. And Muhammad Ali's title fight against Leon Spinks three years earlier, when a lady in red climbed into the ring and peeled off her halter top and skirt before police yanked her away, to the dismay of a sold-out Superdome. Every memory full of revelry ... absurdity ... life... .
Thirteen hours, the last 12 gnawing on the same question that friends asked when they heard where I was going: Oh ... so what's that got to do with sports? Until at last, exhausted, the city rising before me, I gave up and decided to just watch it all unfold, seven days in the life of a catastrophe.
DAY 1: I awoke and left New Orleans behind, driving south into the bayou. Everywhere I turned, it looked like war. Black Hawk helicopters ripped the sky. National Guard trucks and Humvees and bulldozers rumbled across the land, Coast Guard boats zipped across the water, strike teams prowled the bays for oil. The Lakers and Celtics should apologize to us! cried the sports talk show host on the car radio. Men in camouflage gear poured in and out of Homeland Security trailers. Men in hard hats piled out of commandeered New Orleans tour buses and set to work erecting vast tents to serve as mess halls, walling in and wiring vacant boat sheds to transform them into command centers and supply rooms. The game was lousy! It was a dud! Barracks went up. Barges rolled in. Police working 14-hour shifts waved tractor trailers toward forklifts and cranes. It looked like war, but in truth, a cop muttered, it was all "a big pig f---," and the locals couldn't wait to explain to a sportswriter what was really happening right in front of his eyes.
On one side were the outsiders, watermen from Texas and Alabama and Mississippi whom BP had hired to lay protective boom—some made with hard vinyl, some with absorbent polypropylene—around the marsh islands and ports, scratching their heads over maps. On the other were the local fishermen, men who'd been navigating the bayou's maze of islands and waterways since they were old enough to spit, aching for something to do now that their livelihoods were gone. Boom, poorly anchored, kept washing away, they said, and oil kept swamping marsh isles, and the federal government and military kept yielding to BP, and BP kept proving that it was just an oil company with no clue how to organize an unprecedented cleanup, and the parish presidents and councilmen kept screaming at both the government and BP to try their homespun remedies, to do something now, before it was too late. On came the crude, approaching in 40-square-mile slicks a half-foot thick in some places, so dense that baby crabs and turtles were trapped atop it, unable to break through. Seabirds plunged from the sky to feed on them, only to get mired in the sludge too. LeBron made the rounds last night! the man on the radio was saying. He was on Jimmy Kimmel and Nightline! Did you see Lady Gaga with him? She was dressed just like him!
"This is the death of the Gulf of Mexico," said Capt. Brian Clark of the marine division of the St. Bernard Parish sheriff's office. "How can we clean up something that's not even fixed? It's like mopping a bathroom floor while the toilet's still spewing. I'm thinking, there's a monster out there ... a beast we've never fooled with."
I pulled over at docks and marinas along the road. People from every part of the earth had been carried here by the world's loop current: Cajuns, Croats, Cambodians, Canary Islanders, Cubans, Serbs, Africans, Vietnamese, Native Americans, Filipinos, Greeks, Italians, Germans and Lebanese. They couldn't watch TV anymore, they said. The marsh was their workplace, their playground, their grocery store. They smelled oil at night, they said, and couldn't sleep, wondering how they'd pay off the big loans they'd taken to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. They were fighting one another over who got work from BP to help with the cleanup and who didn't, friend turning on friend, brother against brother. They sensed the oil had begun seeping inside them. "People don't want to admit it," a crab dealer named Tino Mones said, "but they are scared, scared, scared. And if there's a hurricane... ."
All of them pausing to ask me the same thing: So what does this horror have to do with sports?