The Mississippi estuary is the babymaker of the Gulf, the pilot said, the hatchery for about 30% of the nation's fish, a festival of redfish and blue marlin and yellowfin tuna and speckled trout and amberjack and flounder and grouper and wahoo and cobia and mahimahi and drum. Back in the day, before the law established limits, if you didn't come back with three big coolers' worth, there was something wrong with you; in recent years, you'd max out by noon. But all that life could never have made it past the egg and larval stages without being protected from predators by all the marsh grass and cane, without the refuge and slack water that beach shoreline simply couldn't offer. Fifteen thousand miles of crenulated coastline in a state 130 miles wide—that's what those marsh islands had wrought, that's what spawned more than one billion pounds of seafood a year, 52 million pounds of crab, 12,000 Louisianan commercial fishermen, 572,000 recreational fishermen and a zillion grams of omega-3 fatty acids unclogging American arteries every year.
But not one of those fishermen was in sight now, only water covered with oil slowly choking it of oxygen, and watermen in white Tyvek hazmat suits hurrying orange and yellow and white boom here and there, hopelessly overmatched by those 15,000 crenulated miles. The pilot took the boat closer to a cluster of marsh islands at the mouth of the Mississippi and pointed. Miles of white absorbent boom ringed each island, but in just over a week they'd been turned brown and bloated by oil, been breached and broken by currents, and now they absorbed nothing. The marsh grass and mangroves were greasy with oil, dying or already dead, awaiting time and tide to carry them and their underlying soil away. Unless the battle turns, said the biologist at the wildlife station at the delta's tip, the fish—whenever they finally come back—will have nothing to come back to.
I stared at the slimed delta. This was Wisconsin and Ohio and Missouri and Tennessee and Arkansas, land flushed down hundreds of small rivers into scores of large ones into one massive one and deposited here. Land for which the men in those states would fight to the death were an enemy taking it, now being seized by oil while the men got coffee and fresh updates on LeBron's free agency.
I looked at the hapless boom and remembered what Jack Stephens, the sheriff of St. Bernard Parish, had told me: "I've had friends diagnosed as terminal, and it's just like this. You can't really accept your fate, or you'll go crazy. So you see all the frenetic energy to do something about it, all the booming—but the oil will get past the boom, and once it gets deposited against the levees and in the marshes, it'll contaminate all the fresh water coming through. We won't see a recovery in a decade. This will show up in Europe, in Africa, in Asia. This is the biggest environmental disaster in world history. I can't sleep at night. They're calling for the worst hurricane season in 10 years. If one comes here, all that oil will be in New Orleans."
The boat returned to shore. On my car radio the people calling in to the local news talk show couldn't stop blaming; it was almost worth getting so wronged just to feel so right. Like all of us, they'd clicked I ACCEPT next to the Terms of Agreement without reading them, had assumed that oil companies all over the world could go right on drilling—at roughly twice the ocean depth that would crush a modern submarine—without ever doing what humans ALWAYS do: cut corners, try to please the boss, make mistakes. And yes, of course, the people were right to have assumed that contingency plans existed, but the longer their efforts went into blaming, the less likely it would ever be applied to new alternatives, to new energy: the perfect outcome for the very oilmen they were blaming.
I pulled over at a Buddhist temple. A bald monk in an orange robe stood outside. Thousands of Vietnamese fishermen live in Louisiana, their lives frozen now, and many look to him for guidance. What is needed now? "If you stay still and take a breath," said Wutthichai Phojhachai, "you can begin to see everything moving around you. The answer will come if you just watch it. The problem has already occurred, so now is not the time for blame. That is wasted time. Involve yourself. Do what you can. So many families with four people—and four cars. Can you drop each other off on the way to work and school? Can you push for new forms of energy? You have to think of action and reaction. You have to see all the links in the chain."
Four years in the West, and the monk still doesn't understand. The oil is what keeps man moving. The oil is what makes sure he never stays still and sees all the links in the chain.
DAY 4: On the fourth day I saw what God saw. Two Black Hawks hoisted me, a few media crews, the governor of Louisiana and BP's new big man, Bob Dudley, the one replacing Tony Hayward as crisis commander, into the sky to assess the battlefield. Suddenly we were looking down on Grand Isle's oil-puddled seven miles of now forbidden beach. Down on the isle's main drag in mid-tourist season, so empty you could bowl on it. Down on the whitecaps, white no more, and on the stunning peacock plumage that about three million barrels of oil make on water: dull gray sheen giving way to iridescent blues and yellows and greens giving way to thick orange scum giving way to dark clotted pools, reddish brown like old blood.
Estimates of how much oil was gushing had just taken another dramatic leap, to the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez disaster every eight to 10 days. Frantic residents had begun sucking up crude with plastic vacuum hoses, rigging pontoon boats with vacuum trucks. The heat index was 110. For the birds—820 brought to rehab centers by that morning, half of them dead—the Gulf was a vat of cooking oil.
The Black Hawks descended on East Grand Terre isle. Here, two days earlier, National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore had sunk thigh-deep in oil and realized he couldn't get out; had he been alone, he likely would've died. On the beach Governor Bobby Jindal led Dudley straight into a pool of oil two football fields long, their shoes sinking into it with each step. Now that Jindal finally had BP's big gun at Ground Zero, along with camera crews from NBC and CBS, his ostrich-skin boots would just have to be sacrificed. The guv found a piece of wood to use as a dipstick and held it in front of Dudley, looking for his response. "You can see pictures, but until you come here and see it, touch it, smell it, you don't really understand," said Dudley. "It's ... it's tragic."