Back on the ground and into the belly of the beast

It’s day 49 of the Gulf oil catastrophe and I am back on the ground, this time in southern Louisiana with Cindy Hoffman and Krista Schlyer to see for myself the true impact on wildlife.

watermarked jamie on boatWe hit the road early this morning and headed to the BP incident command headquarters to meet with Rowan Gould, the acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Kind of odd (and a bit disconcerting) to go into the belly of the beast, but once we were there, I was glad we entered.  Lots of activity, a lot of intensity and even more security. After some negotiating by Rowan, we were able to get into the back rooms where all the action was happening. Before he negotiated with Mike Ulster, the head of the efforts for BP in Louisiana, the BP security would not even let us look in the windows of the rooms.

As Rowan toured us around, I was astonished at the number of people from all over the country and from numerous agencies that had been deployed to tackle this crisis.  Mike Ulster, the overall incident commander for La.  from BP’s north slope operation in AK, and I saw FWS staff from Florida, Tennessee, California, Virginia and many other points across the country (former colleagues of mine had left already full-time jobs back home to respond to this disaster).  The place was also crawling with military, Coast Guard,  National Guard troops, and Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries staff.  I have to admit, I was impresed by how coordinated the effort actually seemed to be.

Rooms full of FWS, Coast Guard and other staff at computers and phones tracking the data on the spill, printing out real-time maps, and directing others on the ground where to go to deploy booms, skimmers and conduct wildlife rescues.  Rowan told us that helicopters fly a grid every day to gather data on the oil and wildlife. They report back to this central command center, which then deploys boats out to where wildlife is being impacted the most. Over fifty boats are staffed with rescue personnel and are out on the water every day, throughout the day, to capture oiled animals and bring them in for rehab.  Just yesterday, they had captured 170 birds, five of them dead. He said it is really hard to get the oil off the birds, it’s just like Jello. This oil is way different than the oil in Valdez, AK.  It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen.

We would soon experience this all for ourselves, as he suggested that we head down to Grand Isle to meet up with some of the Fish and Wildlife folks that would take us out on a boat.  Se off we went, to Grand Isle, a small fishing and beach community that looked like every house on stilts was brand spankin’ new.  We later learned from our boat captain that Hurricaine Katrina hit this part of the Gulf head-on and leveled most of the houses, so just about everything we were seeing was newly built. They were not even yet fully recovered from that natural disaster.

We boarded a small boat captained by one of the hundreds of fishermen recently hired by BP.  He had been fishing these waters his whole life, (he told us he spends way more time on the water than on land) and now he and his son and their boats are employed by the very people that put him out of business.  He was clearly from southern La.  He was delightful to talk to, knew so much about the area and shared his knowledge about the whole reshaping of the region over the years, from the diversions of the mighty Mississippi River to the ongoing attempts to shore up the ecologically rich barrier islands scattered all throughout Barataria Bay.  While the whole area is incredibly vast, the maximum depth is only about four feet, which make the globby oil all the more devastating to the ecology of the area.

He took us first to Bird Island, and boy was it! It was undeniably magical. watermarked pelican rookery

The island was teeming with birds, a busy rookery for pelicans, egrets, roseatte spoonbirds and others. The sounds coming from the island were amazing, it was truly like listening to a bird symphony.  I will say though, the smells were quite a bit less enchanting!  A whole lot of birds in one place aren’t the neatest housekeepers around.   The island was boomed with two rings all around, but the oil had easily made landfall due to some severe storms over the past couple of days. Many of the birds looked surprisingly clean, but some were obviously covered in oil.

Among those was a family of pelicans, with chicks that were coated in a thick carmel colored oil.  Even the brush they were perched on was covered in the slime.  These chicks can’t fly yet, but their parents, in their effort to feed and care for their young, head out into these now deadly waters searching for food.  When they dive down to make their catch, they get covered in oil.  Once they get back to their nests, in the process of feeding and sheilding their young from the blazing sun, the oil on their feathers drips off onto the very chicks they are trying to protect. Combined with many of the nests being “waterfront” property and subject to the tidal surges of oil, this easily put these and other chicks directly in harm’s way.  As a mother myself, this was heartbreaking.  While it was obvious the parents were doing all they could to raise these chicks, I fear it will be all for naught given how compromised they already are.

Rescues of birds are very challenging, as you can imagine.  Officials need to be careful that they don’t cause more damage to the thousands of other birds nesting and rearing young on the island by getting in close to try and rescue one or two.  The rescue team recorded what they saw, but needed a smaller boat that would not spook the birds as much as the motor boats we were in, which they did not have at the time. They would go back later for the oiled chicks.

Sadly after the completion of the afternoon inspection, we headed out to Queen Bess Island. I was particularly interested in getting out to this island because of all of the press on this area over the weekend.  With so many birds drenched in oil, I feared the site would be unbearable to see.  Our boat captain told us that Queen Bess had recently been restored, adding land and a rocky coast to protect the thriving rookery. Apparently all of the rechanneling of the Mississippi River by the Army Corps had really impacted this thriving island, causing water to erode these bird hotspots to the point of almost totally disappearing.  The rocks around the island were coated in the slimy oil, clear evidence of the impact that was reported in the papers.  They had managed to capture many of the worst-off birds over the weekend, and replace the booms, although the booms we saw were already saturated with oil once again and globs of it were floating all around.

watermarked pelican oily rocksBy the time we got to Queen Bess, our rescue team had managed to get the smaller boat they could paddle up to the island.  One of the rescuers, donning a white hazmat suit, got into the boat and paddled towards shore.  His mission: to gently flush the birds on the shore so he could see which ones were so covered in oil that they could not fly. Fortunately, this trip was better than those of the recent past, and he did not find any in such a debilitating  state. With the rescue mission over for the day, we headed back to shore.  As we crossed back over Barataria Bay, it was hard not to notice the flotilla of fishing boats that have been converted with long simmers that almost look like wings hanging off each side of the vessels.  These “fisherman” spend all day out in the Bay skimming the oil off the surface trying to “clean” the area. It’s hard to imagine ever getting an area that vast with such fast moving water ever clean, but you can’t help but be overwhelmingly impressed with the fortitude and determination and comraderie of all those hard working folks who are working tirelessly in unbelievably harsh weather conditions to get this job done.  The daily temperatures and heat index rose above 112 degrees F, high enough to wither most humans, including me.

Driving back through Grand Isle at sunset, we decided to check out the beach and see what was happening there.  We ran across a large clean-up crew that was packing up for the day. There were big man-made berms of sand that had recently been mounded all along the coast line.  Huge culvert-like tubes fronted the sand berms for as far as we could see in either direction along the once (I’m sure) densely populated swimming area. Cars with Coast Guard and others were driving up and down the beach. It reminded me of the border wall, along the Mexico/US border.  A safety officer came over to us to warn us not to touch anything or attempt to crawl over the berm to the ocean (why in the world would we do that?!).  The whole area is now considered contaminated and if we got too close, we would be required to go through decontamination procedures.  That was enough to discourage me from any significant exploration.

We headed back to New Orleans for the night, overwhelmed by what we saw but incredibly impressed by all the people working so hard to beat this beast of a spill. It’s so clear that this region is overwhlmingly impacted on so many levels for the future as far as we can see it.  Let’s just continue to hope the the spectaular wetlands and incredible biological diversity can hang on while humans work hard to right this horrible wrong on the landscape.

39 Responses to “Back on the ground and into the belly of the beast”

  1. Kathy Freeborn

    thank you for all your hard work.
    I am praying for the Gulf
    I am praying for a miracle
    best wishes

    • John Erickson

      Kathy: Thank you dear one! I’m praying right along with you. Let’s do all we can on every level. John Erickson

    • Barbara

      prayers will not help this situation – face it. we must stop drilling for oil. Shell is now boasting 8 mile drilling??? when will it stop? only when we insist, demand, our government go back to the 1980 moratorium on drilling for oil in osc etc. our first President Bush stopped the drilling, and his son George W released that and declared drilling for oil can – can be started again.



  3. Gloria

    A friend in Sarasota can smell the oil from her house.She has bronchitus and is afraid this will affect her health. How shameful we can’t get cameras to take pictures without fear of arrest or getting cameras taken away. What else does BP have to hide? How arrogant BP is to believe that people across the country don’t have friends and relatives living in these areas to tell what they know and have seen.

  4. Roland

    What is the purpose/usefulness of all the security? Did you see any legitimate media, or are they all sitting back at the bars making up ‘facts’?

  5. Caryl

    Pray if that makes you feel better. Then please call and email your representatives and the White House and DEMAND they take ACTION and recruit ALL the tankers, pumping equipment, new technology, volunteers, armed forces, whatever it takes to prevent ANY MORE OIL FROM REACHING vital estuaries and beaches. Watching this oil slowly destroy these ecosystems while we wait for BP to take adequate responsible action tells us quite a lot about OUR representation, or lack thereof. This oil disaster is going to kill the entire state of Florida eventually and we won’t live long enough to see it recover.

  6. Laura

    Are the experts ever going to consider liquid nitrogen to freeze the spill in the pipeline? I’ve read where several people have made the suggestion. If it freezes oil and gas, and expands to fill the pipe, wouldn’t that give enough time to then cap the end? Or is the problem getting the stuff so far down under pressure?

    Thank you for the updated reports.

  7. Angie K. Denver,Colorado

    This Catastrophic Oil spill has saddened me. I find myself glued to the TV every single day, all day long, hoping and Praying that I will hear some good news that the OIL will stop flowing. Almost 2 months later, and it’s still flowing.

    I am continuing to PRAY that everyone down on the coast continue to find the strength to save as much Wildlife possible, and all those who have been affected by this horrible crisis!!

    GOD give all of you STRENGTH!!

  8. Kay barnes

    Thank you so much for coming to the coast and for your firsthand description of what is going on.
    There are pictures in the paper and we get updates of what is dead or washed ashore but all of you actually got in there to tell us more. The devastation of our beautiful birds and mammals has given us great grief. Once they are clean they have no place to go but back out there. We are so sad. From the AL Gulf Coast,
    Fairhope, on the Mobile Bay….KAY

  9. Marcie

    This is so sad. I keep hearing words like “monitoring” and “measuring” the oil spill. I can tell you, it’s A LOT of oil. And dead animals soaked in oil PROBABLY died from the oil. The news acts like the animals need to have an autopsy to figure out what killed them. I don’t like the sounds of BP trying to keep people away from what is going on. And what’s with all the military? Are they concerned that, when people find out what a DISASTER this is, they might get unruly??? Those boneheads at BP had no right to be drilling down that far if they didn’t have any idea of how to contain a spill.

  10. Rosemary Light

    Everything BP and the lap dog Feds are doing is NOT to stop the gusher, but to ensure that BP collects as much oil it can for its own profits while appearing to be doing everything possible to stop it. Laura, the best oil-stopping procedures like using liquid nitrogen or cold fusion will not be considered unless we the people forcibly take over the whole operation. At this stage in our evolution as Americans we are a hundred years from making that choice. In the meantime we need to join Defenders of Wildlife to do our best to clean up the increasing spills that will happen from now on and help the wildlife, plant life, soil and ocean environments do their best to recover. The Canadian government just recently okayed a DEEPER oil drilling project by BP off the coast of Newfoundland.

  11. rosemary fox

    when i became a mother, many years ago, my newly-activated instinct to nurture my children automatically broadened to include all of nature. much later, on a vacation in cabo san lucas, mexico, my husband and i signed up for a boat trip to see a seal colony and some beautiful beaches. the water was bustling with many, many boats. in the middle of all this human activity, on a rock protruding from the water, was a brown pelican, sitting quite still. i noticed that one of its wings was broken, bent at a crazy angle to its body. i also noticed that no one else – on our boat or any of the others i could see – was looking at this poor bird. somehow, it was invisible to all the other people. i realized that the bird’s injury was almost surely due to its being hit by a boat or boat propeller. what were the chances of this creature’s survival, i wondered. surely, not very good. sadness and shame made me cry as i looked at that poor symbol of human disregard for Nature./thank you, defenders of wildlife, for reporting on what’s going on down in the gulf. thank you for championing the life that can’t speak up for itself.

  12. Betty N.

    Thank you for all you’re trying to do. I feel so for all of those
    poor animals who are suffering and dying from this oil spill. I
    wish there could be more that we could do to help. I also feel for
    the people who have lost their ability to povide a living for

  13. Teresita Doebley

    I spend every lunch hour watching the news on the computer, and it always leaves me feeling frustrated, hopeless, and very saddened. Since the spill, I have become a “Guardian” of wildlife through the Defenders of Wildlife and have signed up for volunteering through Tri-State Bird Research and Rescue in Delaware. In the fall, I will take the all-day training required to clean oiled birds. And somehow . . . I still don’t feel it’s enough.

    • Ellen

      can you tell me where to call or write to get the training?

  14. Dottie

    I live in SW Florida and I worry everyday that oil may get into the everglades. The ecosystem would be destroyed forever. It seems to me that BP should have a way to stop the flow of oil. When you have a business, don’t you think about consequences? Florida is precious and there is nothing like it. I have lived here for 55 years. I have watched the small towns turn into cities and with all the building it isn’t the same as it was when I was a child. In some ways it is good and in many ways it is bad, because it just keeps pushing the wildlife farther and farther back. The everglades however need protecting. There is nothing justifiable that BP can say that could put back what we are losing. One thing that does bother me is that they are going to drill another well so they can divert the oil to the new site. So even if it is fixed and the leak is stopped, we will still have BP drilling oil in our backyards. Forgive me for going on and on. I love my state and its wildlife. I have become so disheartened by what is happening. Say a prayer for our state and its wildlife. Blessings to you all.



  16. charlene burton

    my thoughts are with you all and the animals thank god there are people like you who are trying to save all the wildlife,it is so upseting i wish i could be there with you to help,ill be thinking of you when you try and tackle this terrible oil spill,good luck and take care.

  17. Julie' Weldon

    Hi. I want a job. I want a contract. I CAN train people in wildlife emergency response. I can ask questions, handle wildlife, oranize teams of people, work cameras, interview folks, and SO VERY MUCH MORE I am the (former) Founder of an (npo) in Dallas County. I made a big difference in the North Central Texas region, and trained my own (apoointed to me) Game Warden who became the trainer for new recruits. It’s an uphill battle. I have survived cancer, and have been searching for my ‘next’ chapter. I’ve filled out forms, made calls, filed claims an more. I’ve heard back from 1 person in the bp press office out of London who simply referred me to the (already known & contacted) number for information. Who do I contact now? You all? The Governor’s office hasnt responded (yet) nor has the white………………..sincere and looking for the contract. Where do I go from here?

  18. David Harron

    I have heard rumors of the ability of pet hair booms to sop up the oil is there any evidence that this method is being tryed by any groups? David Harron , Berkeley Ca.

    • Dottie

      They were going to use just regular hair from people. Beauty shops were sending in tons of the stuff. I don’t remember why they decided not to use it. Maybe because some of the oil is so thick that it wouldn’t do the best job or it was too expensive to try to tie them all together.

  19. Terry

    I heard an NPR interview with a biologist today. He said that most breeds of oiled birds may appear to recover, but seldom lived more than a few weeks afterward due to the oil they had ingested trying to preen.

    He cited what he said were some statistics from the Valdez disaster where birds fitted with bands were found dead from petroleum poisoning, some within just a few days.

    Is this true?

    • Dottie

      In Florida they keep the pelicans and other birds after they are cleaned. They also use suction and go down their throats to suck out any of the oil. When they seem to have recovered sufficently after a week or so and are eating, they are release into another area where there is no oil.

  20. Re-L Cherie

    BP has a terrible track record. If you research the company, it has had several “incidents” before the Deepwater Horizon spill, and two BP-owned refineries in Texas City, Texas, and Toledo, Ohio, were responsible for 97 percent (829 of 851) of willful safety violations by oil refiners between June 2007 and February 2010. I don’t purchase gas from BP stations anymore, or Chevron and Exxon for that matter, as the latter two have been dumping toxic waste into the Amazon and refuse to clean it up. For a while now, I have been buying only Hess gas. I urge all of you to do a little research online to find out which gas station nearest you has the cleanest track record and the “greenest” practices.

    Thank you Defenders for all that you do.

  21. Judith B Fisher

    I Thank all the people volunteering to save the shorelines, the environment, and
    birds from the Oil..WHY is BP being allowed to prevent pictures being taken of this chaos.?!,etc. Sen. Bernie Sanders,VT, gave an excellent 17 minute speech in the US Senate on the 10th.Why has no one mentioned Sander’s demands that our Government, our well educated President, and all of us as caring citizens
    STOP allowing BP to be in control.Our President needs to stand up against BP &
    use his leadership powers. WE all need to realize we consume too much–and are too dependent on oil..It will take our USA a long time to cure oil addictions–but, WE can do this. it is time that the media helped us to see environmental
    protection IS vital for the earth- This is where our future and jobs are–Hope we all will wake up in time..and protest against BP.

  22. Leah Burkhart

    your report was good, but I was troubled by something…it would seem by your wording…that this was yet another NATURAL disaster. I know it was an error in wording but let’s remember there was NOTHING natural in this DISASTER.

    Thank you, and thank you for bringing back something to give us all hope.

  23. Del "Abe" Jones

    “Drill, Baby, Drill”

    Each one of us, is to blame
    For the Gulf oil spill
    We could end our dependence
    But, seems like we never will!

    We keep voting in officials
    Who are paid of by big oil
    To keep all of us, using it
    No matter, what it may spoil.

    BP is not the only culprit
    All those companies are the same
    Making billions off us
    Playing, their dirty game.

    Coal companies are no different
    They ruin our lands, lakes, and streams
    Pollute our air, let miners die
    And deny, their dirty schemes.

    Fossil fuels will be our downfall
    And, we don’t seem to care
    As long as we can drive
    Our cars, from here to there.

    There are myriads of ways
    To get our power and our fuel
    We won’t demand the changes
    And play, the corporations, fool.

    As long as we listen to them
    And, let them buy/control our laws
    We will always get the short end
    And will never fix the flaws.

    They say, they’ll pay the damages
    Does anyone, think that’s true?
    In one way or the other
    It will be paid, by me and you!

    We must try to find some leaders
    Who aren’t corrupt, bought and sold
    We must demand, they do us right
    (Should we dare, to be, so bold!)

    “Drill, baby, drill!”, the mantra
    Mine, and desecrate, the land
    Kill off wildlife and fisheries
    How much more, can we stand?

    We’ll get what’s coming to us
    As long, as we stand idly by
    And, we will never change things
    If, we don’t have the guts, to try!

    Del “Abe” Jones

  24. Amy

    thank you so much for this article. What a tragedy! It is almost unbearable to watch and I live on the west coast. I can’t imagine what the folks living in these areas is going through. Although I work full-time I’m trying to figure out how and when to volunteer to help with anything.

  25. JayneeB

    I took a day off from the outside world since I had to go to an event and present a cheerful face. This morning I came back to it
    and have been sobbing for an hour. This is to our gulf as Mt. Vesuvius was to Pompeii. The death and destuction of animals and
    plants and of the last places many have to live, feed, breed and
    raise their young are forever damaged.
    I came from a city on the gulf and live near there still, so my
    thoughts about destroying estuaries, supposedly protected wetlands,
    and whole species because it cost too much for an extra step or
    piece, or the BP man said so, sounds so lame. As this viscous fluid
    and it’s “dispersants” (more poisons spread to help the oil spread further and descend into the lower levels) flow, more death comes.
    We who are supposedly the most intelligent of all creatures won’t
    be able to save dolphins, or spoonbill roseates, or the funny pelicans. The crab, shrimp, oysters and fish may disappear or be
    deadly forever. As the monster travels it will affect the Fl.Keys
    and perhaps the Everglades, as unique an ecosystem as the Amazon
    or the rain forests. Stop for a moment and just think about all of
    NOW—GET BUSY!! Email everyone you think could have any power or
    idea to clean or plug that well! Contact overseas papers with a call for help. Find some money to give to an established, well run wildlife and land charity. Call the White House and tell those running for office to run BACK to D.C. and get some help. Let the WORLD know we need help.
    Haven’t you ever wondered why we hand out help freely, yet never accept it? I have.
    White House – comments(202)456-6213 switchboard(202)456-1414

  26. Pat Bartholomew

    As far as the BP disaster my belief has been verified when the short cutting came out in news of discussion between CEO’s and even Haliburton (suggesting more safeguards) but it was full speed ahead because time and money was the priority. Wonder what they think about short cuts over safety now? It is a horrendous tragedy. It breaks my heart to see the animals down to the smallest caught in this ghastly man caused hell. Brown Pelicans with gorgeous strong wings unable to understand why they won’t lift them up into the sky. Bloody hell. Also I think BP nixed a lot of valid professional and experienced assistance from the beginning because the enormity of the blow-out would have been revealed. This catastrophe is a direct result of the old Republican philosophy “get the government off our backs”.

  27. Bret Tyrey

    Thanks for the Enlightening Report. It’s good to get a report from Ground Zero on this devastation.

  28. Laws

    I am continuing to PRAY that everyone down on the coast continue to find the strength to save as much Wildlife possible, and all those who have been affected by this horrible crisis!!

    GOD give all of you STRENGTH!!

    And God give the World Strength when it effects all the Oceans and Rivers

    Stop Drilling employ all the Staff and Families for the environment should take at least maybe over 100 years

    What Muppets are running the show – Its death to our earth in every way- Mother earth has it down deep for a reason- we build our homes with frames and structure- so dose she-These rich people know and own plans to other options that are friendly-Money needs to stop making the world go around and start to look after it -we print the rubbish anyway.
    Money dose not stop Death but it can try to prevent it.

  29. Sara W.

    I pray everyday for this nightmare to end. My heart is broken and my soul is filled with sadness.

  30. keith thomas

    I used to clean up oil spills for a company called sokerol . they used to have a product called sokerol plus fur and feather , it apparently worked whereas the soaps will not because they take away the naturale oils of the animals feather . therefore the problem you hjave is that
    1. the animal is shocked, and to treat straight away means then that you may get a result but the animal dies after forty eight hours animals must be kept quiet for 24 hours and then treated . The sokerol plus was a milled waste organic product made from pine cones , it was the by product of Sokerol whichj is used to clean oil and chemical spills on water and on ladn ./ I have used this product and it is pretty damned good . The other thing is that the product will bio degrade and will leave no residue and will not allow leaching into groundwaters.The product is made from pine cone from the tuan state forest near tinm can bay in burnett region of qld in australia. The product references are as follows

    the recovery and treatment of massive diesel leakage into groundwater in Groote Eylandte , BHP will not own up but for 25 years there they had leakage from their diesel tanks . there was a sheen on the ocean at groote and we fixed it .
    Please log onto Sokerol australia and see what I mean

    Kind regards

    Keith Thomas
    CT Freight Pty Ltd
    west australia

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