Cat Island, Louisiana — During the past eleven weeks I’ve been on and around the edges of Barataria Bay for many days. This is ground-zero for the oil mess clean-up in southern Louisiana, a 650-square-mile jigsaw puzzle of marshes and wetlands where hundreds of workers have been sweating for weeks, valiantly attempting to wipe, absorb and suck up the oil which has penetrated it deeply.
If you haven’t been there in person, it’s hard to describe just how convoluted the place is. Imagine it this way, using that puzzle analogy: Think of a 1,500-piece jigsaw puzzle spread out on a table. Now randomly take half those pieces away, the pieces that remain resemble the bay.
It is a jagged, unformed piece of shallow water and low-lying land with no straight lines and thousands of corners, inlets, shallows and loosely connecting waterways. Today, oil has seeped into nearly every corner. Policing it – trying to stop it from entering, with booms – proved impossible. Skimming oil off the surface has worked to a degree, but even the dozens of fishing boats armed with skimmers can only make a dent. Cleaning it up once the oil has invaded the edges of the marshes is, well, a nightmare. Imagine trying to scrub individual pieces of sea grass by hand or vacuum out bubbly brown crude that has penetrated several feet into the wetlands.
During a recent weekend on the bay I was able to see the efforts being coordinated by a variety of local and non-local contractors, who have each hired workers, some from the area, some from other states. While there appears to be lots of activity on the bay – boats zooming here and there, floating villages set up as way stations – there seems to be little authority or control.
Many of the oil-soaked booms ringing, or partly ringing, wetland islands need to be changed but instead have been ignored and pushed onshore by currents and tides. The giant barge communes that have been floated in the heart of the bay to serve as central drop-offs for oil vacuumed up – some of it by shop-vacs purchased at nearby box stores, others by sophisticated pumping systems – are often surrounded by small boats filled with men who seem to be constantly on break.
%Gallery-98231%Every boat that heads out to help in the clean-up, many filled with fishermen whose livelihood is now and perhaps forever on hold, get a safety briefing from the Coast Guard, which is nominally in charge here.
But from sea level, judging by the work going on, the incredible amount of work still to be done, and a fair amount of workers adrift who clearly need some direction, one thing is clear: No one is really in charge of this clean-up.
While there are lots of workers toiling hard under the hot sun, there are also more than a few who are out there to collect a day’s pay with as little sweat as possible. On a political level, it’s clearly hard for some of the local elected officials to crack down when they see such abuse; many of these are their voters, after all, and they need jobs.
In retrospect, it makes me wish one thing President Obama had done just weeks into the gusher, was to call out the Navy and the Marines (whatever is left of them in this country, given their other current obligations).
This ongoing mess seems a perfect setting for an orderly, disciplined, ceaseless, military attack rather than a chaotic, independent, freelance approach. Granted, some of those jobs for needy locals would be diminished. But my gut says the oil would be better contained.