DAY 2: Next stop, BP. Its crisis command center in Houma, La., a massive glass, steel and stone building arising from fields of sugarcane, teemed with people in uniforms and jumpsuits with agency acronyms taped to their backs. The building sat on an entry road that VP executives had named Learning Lane.
The two military men at the checkpoint wouldn't let me in. The p.r. person who appeared a half hour later said that anyone I might want to speak to was busy or elsewhere, but if there was a certain aspect of the operation I wished to discuss, an interview might be arranged on another day. Perhaps we could talk about BP's program offering local fishermen the chance to convert their fishing craft into oil cleanup boats, the program executives had named Vessels of Opportunity.
I began wondering about the words I was hearing. Product was how the people who worked with it referred to oil, and product, too, was what the man who ran a dockside shellfish business called crabs. Fish were called seafood. Fish were not being killed by oil. Seafood was being impacted by oil. Even people who wanted BP burned at the stake spoke that way.
In New Orleans that evening, an hour's drive north of the impacted zone, a short 57-year-old woman with a big bowl of curly white hair was taking a knife to the numbness and distance that such words created. Ro Mayer, an artist and real-estate agent, was leading a funeral procession—for the Gulf and the birds and the fish—around the fringe of the French Quarter. She lives in a city of fatalists, she explained, people who revel in their capacity to eat and drink in the face of disaster, who came down from the rooftops when the water receded and partied on, and they haven't yet grasped that this disaster is a different and darker one. Just the day before, she'd been listening to a CD of marsh sounds in her car when the quacking of ducks froze her. It's a sound she grew up hearing at Thanksgiving, when the ducks paused on their long migration to the Caribbean and Central America, and suddenly it occurred to her that on the heels of the massacre of the fish in the heart of their spawning season, the five million migrating birds arriving in the delta to rest this autumn and winter would splash down in a toxic dump. Right there, at the steering wheel, she began crying.
A protest, Ro said, wouldn't draw flies here. To protest something, you have to believe in something else; no, not in a state that leads the land in convicted public officials, not after Katrina and Bush, not after FEMA became an acronym for Fix Everything, My Ass. But a costume party, a procession for the dead, a musical parade? That'd get hearts thumping. And so she'd Facebooked 300 people, lickety-split, and placed a papier-mâché woman inside a coffin to represent the Gulf, and now there were pallbearers and trumpeters and tuba players and drummers and skeletons and death masks and papier-mâché heads of pelicans and sea horses, all with black paint cascading over them, all banging and blaring and chanting down Julia Street—"What the flock, BP, what the flock!"—their numbers swelling to 500 as gawkers joined their Krewe of Dead Pelicans.
"What do you do when you're facing the firing squad and know you're going to die?" Ro asked. "You have some fun and try to reach a critical mass of people who'll stand up as giving a damn, because if we don't come out of our holes ... we end up like the frog that's put in a frying pan with a little cold water over a low flame. He boils to death and never knows it, never moves—that's us till now. I refuse to be paralyzed. My hair's on fire. My dogs won't come near me. My husband wants to sue BP for loss of consortium. He hasn't seen me for weeks—my face has been in a computer talking to people forming Krewes of Dead Pelicans in other cities, trying to create a community that will make a stand."
Her grandfather, she said, was an engineer who rebuilt oil refineries after they blew up. One of her brothers was a mud-logger on oil rigs, another was a technical director for an oil company. Her family, like most people here, was waist-deep in oil ... but did that really make them any different from the rest of us? "We made a deal with the devil," said Ro, "and now it's time to dance."
DAY 3: I'd never lived near oil. "Offshore" drilling had lulled me into thinking, Out of sight, maybe out of mind. No more. Every few miles another hulking mass of metal, rusted and rotted by the salt-soaked air—tanks, pipelines, containers, hangars, sheds, cranes, trailers, cables, scrap piles, all the onshore depots required to sustain those massive drill bits out at sea—rose and ripped the eternity that marshes and oceans and shoreline offered the eye and the heart.
It was time to see and touch the beast we've never fooled with. I boarded a Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries boat and headed to the front lines, out where men were trying to keep oil from coating and killing the marsh grass and cane whose root systems were the wetlands' very glue, holding silt and sand together so it all wouldn't wash away. And why did that matter terribly? Because every 2.7 square miles of marsh reduces the storm surge of every hurricane by one foot, the wildlife and fisheries pilot said. The lives of every man, child, dog and cat in southern Louisiana could hang on the fate of those wetlands, on how much of the 436,000 tons of sediment belching from the Mississippi River each day coheres into islands ... and how much is dispersed in the Gulf. Two hundred seventeen square miles of marsh vanished because of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005; 1,900 square miles have disappeared since the 1930s as levee building and river dredging and oil pipeline laying carved up the delta and made the mighty river run deeper and faster and fling its golden silt farther into the Gulf, and into oblivion. Every day the Gulf of Mexico creeps closer to the Big Easy.
The boatman killed the engines. Listen. No sound. No insects. No birds. And the fish?