4 years later

Four years ago today, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig operated by BP exploded. I first wrote much of what follows in 2012. Sadly, not much has changed, except that many of us have forgotten even more.

11 men working on the rig lost their lives that day. 11 families lost their loved ones forever. Let us take a moment to honor and remember them. 

~  Jason Anderson  ~  Roy Wyatt Kemp  ~  Donald Clark  ~  Karl Kleppinger  ~  Shane Roshto  ~  Dewey Revette  ~ 

~  Gordon Jones  ~  Blair Manuel ~  Aaron Dale Burkeen  ~  Stephen Curtis  ~  Adam Weise  ~

 

12 crosses on the beach at Grand Isle, Louisiana: one each for the 11 men killed in the explosion and 1 for the Gulf of Mexico.

And then the oil started spewing out, a total of more than 200 million gallons over the next 12 weeks.  The oil reached about 1,000 miles of shoreline and marsh, from Texas to Florida.  Some of it was skimmed up. Most of it, though, ended up in the water column and on the ocean floor.

No one knows how much, but it is pretty well accepted that a lot of oil (and dispersant) ended up at the bottom of the Gulf and in the water column.  Ask most any kid in a coastal community along the Gulf of Mexico what lives on the bottom of the ocean and they'll begin rattling off favorite seafoods: shrimp, crab, flounder.  What affects might sunken oil have on these organisms?

2 years after the spill, scientists lent support to what fishermen and coastal residents had known for months: fish, shrimp, and other seafood are messed up -- suffering from lesions, lacking eyes, hosting other weird deformities.  And they all suspect it is related to the oil.  When I was there, I heard many stories of "eyeless shrimp," but I never saw one because these shrimp had been caught during the last shrimping season, more than 6 months earlier. 

There's plenty more to be concerned about in the Gulf.  While in Bayou La Batre, I saw many of the off-shore shrimping boats soberly return home and tie up indefinitely.  They weren't catching many shrimp -- haven't since the spill -- and it just wasn't worth the price of fuel.  I've talked to kids, and adults, suffering from a myriad of health issues that cropped up in the aftermath of the oil spill and clean up.  I personally picked up nearly a dozen tar balls during a half hour walk on the beach at Grand Isle.  I've talked with fishermen convinced that the seafood they're selling is poisonous; they won't feed it to their family, but they feel they have little choice but to sell it to the public.  Kids have complained to me that they still don't feel safe (or their parents don't feel safe) swimming in the Gulf, bays, and brackish bayous. I've commiserated with people who have lost their businesses and watched their towns dwindle as fewer visitors come to fish, swim, and relax.  I've driven through the village of Isle de Jean Charles, looking at all the homes that have been abandoned as land is lost and waters continue to rise.  I've watched sunset by a "ghost cypress," the stately tree reduced to a skeleton by encroaching saltwater. 

I'm going to go out on a limb here: BP is not responsible for everything bad and scary happening in the Gulf right now. (On the flip side, the oil spill is probably linked to a whole lot of it). For sure, the land loss and saltwater encroachment is caused by complex factors operating over dozens of years (oil killing the marsh plants didn't help though).  That doesn't make these things any less bad and scary.

4 years ago, our public attention turned to the Gulf and we worried over what might happen there.  Now, it seems like we've forgotten all about it.  I asked on the 2 and 3 year memorials, and I ask you again on this 4 year memorial, to start paying attention.  It is now time to look at what can be done to fix some of what is broken, to reach out to those most in need of help, to stabilize an ecosystem, to preserve an amazing culture and way of life. 

Moving forward, looking back after 25 years

25 years.  25 years (and a few hours) since the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef and crude oil began leaking out into Prince William Sound.   In many ways, today is no different than yesterday or a month ago.  In fact it isn't much different than a year ago or 4 or maybe even 11.  Yes, much has recovered in Prince William Sound and Southcentral Alaska, both in ecosystems and human communities.  But much healing remains for many organisms and parts of the ecosystems, people and pieces of our communities. 

We needed healing yesterday, and we'll need it tomorrow.  Perhaps we'll need it even more so tomorrow, after this 25 year commemoration or memorial or whatever you want to call it.  Because today is the day that all sorts of media outlets run pieces about the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, articles that recount the horrors of that time, identify things that are still "not recovering."   I don't like that phrase at all.  It feels as if it is blaming the animals, individuals, or communities for not being able to bounce right back.  As if the herring, pigeon guillemots, or people want to be struggling.  Looking at the photos, reading the words, remembering that spill, is absolutely excruciating.  I can feel the darkness encroaching, like the oil did so many years ago.  I'm 27.  I've been living in the wake of the oil spill for the entirety of my coherent, conscious life.  Indeed, my first memories are oil spill related.  In some ways, though, I am lucky.  I can't really remember what it was like "Before."  I was way too young to be exposed to the harshest realities of the oil spill, instead picking up bits and pieces of the emotional havoc it wreaked through dark jokes, sarcastic remarks, and overheard arguments.   For me, I can afford to remember and piece together the stories precisely because the memories are just far enough removed from my personal experience.  I - and others of my generation - are in a unique position.  We can remember.  We know enough to remember, and not so much that remembering can really hurt. 

Many in Alaska can't really remember.  Many of those that lived through it want nothing more than to put it behind them, maybe even to forget.  Others are too young to remember directly and haven't learned much about the Spill growing up.  In visiting classes around southcentral Alaska, I was surprised how many students were unfamiliar with the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, even when their communities, parents, siblings were directly involved.

As communities, we must remain prepared, vigilant to protect our communities and homes. But how can we learn from the past without reliving the horrors? A unique and inspiring solution to this challenge was seen in Homer a couple months ago when the 5th and 6th grade students of Fireweed Academy in Homer hosted a "Discovery Lab" about the Spill (in partnership with the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve and PWSRCAC).  What a thoughtful and meaningful way for these kids to engage the issue, to look back and move forward.  A way of providing kids with opportunities to learn about the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, share their knowledge, and get involved with local efforts to prevent oil pollution of all sorts. 

I was lucky enough to visit the Discovery Lab and go in to the class the following week.  An incredibly curious group of kids, the students and I had some interesting conversations about the Spill and what has happened since then.  As I left, I asked them two questions.  The first was what they would do to help kids after an oil spill.  One student, dubbed "Mystery Student CNAI," suggested telling younger kids that "Everything is going to be all right" and comforting them, and asking older kids how it has affected them and discussing why it is affecting them.  An insightful suggestion indeed, and a need that many kids have voiced in Alaska and along the Gulf of Mexico.

The second question was, What do you look for to know that Kachemak Bay is healthy.   One student poignantly responded,

"I look for happy animals and kids running about in the water. It means going out to go to the beach and having fun.  I look for fish swimming in the water and enjoying the heat, birds singing in the trees, everything colorful instead of grim black. The trees a strong green and all of the animals frolicking with strong happy minds.

That is what I look for."

Well, that is what I look for too.  This 25 year memorial will pass and the world's gaze will swing away, but we must continue the work to ensure that Kachemak Bay, Prince William Sound, and all of the ocean can fulfill that vision.  And sometimes that means looking back while moving forwards.   Thank you to the students of Fireweed Academy and Ms. Kris Owens for reminding me - and hopefully others - just how important this work is.  

Sassafras Louisiana

During my time working on Children of the Spills, I have met some incredible people.  I know I've said it before, but I am truly blown away by the tenacity and generosity, compassion and zest of the people in Alaska, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and beyond that have added their unique flavor to this project.

And one flavor that I find particularly inspiring is that of Sassafras Louisiana.  Erika and I had the chance last spring to talk, laugh, and swap fish stories with members of Sassafras LA over a table-full of Cajun appetizers (including alligator!) The group is named after the sassafras tree, the source of filé. Like this Cajun spice that "brings everything together” in dishes such as gumbo, the group is made up of local teens working to bring the youth together in the restoration and preservation of coastal Louisiana.

That goal alone is noteworthy.  With as much as 17 square miles of marsh being lost every year in Louisiana and ongoing challenges from hurricanes and the oil spill and ensuing clean-up, any group working towards the restoration and preservation of coastal Louisiana deserves a second look.  It is not an easy task to take on.  Coastal land loss is a complex problem.  There are lots of potential causes, including everything from shipping canals to flood protection levees to hurricanes to invasive species.  Potential solutions tend to be even more complex and controversial, and often involve significant feats of physical engineering and large sums of money.  And yet, this group is determined to do whatever they can to restore and protect coastal Louisiana.

Even more awesome is the fact that Sassafras LA was created through the vision and hard work of 16 and 17 year olds who were determined to take action to help coastal Louisiana and the “people, food, music, wildlife, natural environment, industries, and overall rhythm of life that make it special.”  They were repeatedly told they were too young to help in the aftermath of the BP/Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. They could not stand idly by, though, and instead created this organization to help protect coastal Louisiana from erosion and disasters. 

But the most wonderful aspect of this group – and the thing that brings a smile to my face and hope to my heart -- is that these young people are for real.  They care deeply and passionately about this cause because they love their place, their home. Explaining, "we were born here; we grew up here; and we plan to grow old here,” these amazing individuals truly love their home in coastal Louisiana.  Each one has their own reasons: record-holding fish catches, relaxed neighborhood seafood boils, hunting for frogs, the smell of the mud, the beauty of the lights over the water at night, the local "dress code."  These teens love the place they call home and the beautiful mixture of land, water, and people that make it just the way it is.  

These teens grew up in coastal Louisiana – exploring its lands, swimming in its waters, eating its seafood, learning from its residents.  They know what this place is all about.  Not only do they know what is at stake here, they know what can be gained here.  And they know that the vibrant culture of coastal Louisiana is their strongest resource. They celebrate this culture, and have put together a plan that engages the industrious, spirited, and strong-willed people of the bayous.

On March 23, Sassafras Louisiana will host the second annual Nutria Rodeo.   This event captures the unique essence of the group.  Nutria were introduced to the marshes decades ago by fur ranchers.  They began to overrun the wetlands when market demand declined.  By selectively browsing on the shoots of marsh plants that would otherwise prevent erosion, nutria have grown to be a major hindrance to the health of wetlands in Louisiana.  Quickly recognizing that getting nutria out of local marshes is an important step towards protecting and restoring them, Sassafras LA created a fun-filled event with prizes, food, and music to encourage the round-up of nutria.  The first event helped remove more than a dozen nutria from the marsh; the nutria meat was mostly turned into sausage.  More importantly, the uniquely Cajun event brought hundreds of people together to celebrate protecting the marsh.  And because the idea is so distinctive, word of the event, and increasing awareness of land loss, spread throughout the United States.  I wish I could make it to the second annual Nutria Rodeo.  It promises to be a really good time for a really good cause.

These young people get it.  They are for real.  They are intelligent, creative, and dedicated.  They understand the issues and challenges well, without forgetting the value of fun and a sense of humor.  And they’re not afraid to get a little bit muddy!  It is tempting to finish with, “These teens are going to do great things,” but the truth is, they already have.


A trancript of our full interview with members of Sassafras Louisiana will be available soon on this website.  For more information about the group, check out their website http://www.sassafrasla.org or Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/sassafras.la   Better yet, catch them at the Nutria Rodeo.

Mermaids and Sea Monsters and Clean Oceans

I recently returned from the Copper River Wild Salmon Festival in Cordova, Alaska.  I had a wonderful time, especially since the weekend was graced with a gloriously sunny day and a not-too-rainy day.  There was plenty of fun to be had, from fish-printing to dancing.  For Children of the Spills, it was a chance to share updates of the project with the community where this project really took shape (the first interviews I did were in Cordova), meet some new people, touch base with other oil spill & coastal educators and bring the project to lots of kids. Erika and I had so much fun doing drawings with kids at Celebrate the Gulf in Pass Christian, MS, I decided to do something similar.  The biggest hit at Celebrate the Gulf was when we let kids draw on the tablecloth, so I got a big piece of white cloth and a pack of markers.

During the "Small Fry" activities at the Copper River Wild Festival, kids drew their hopes for a healthy River, Sound, and Ocean. 

The result was a striking menagerie, including all sorts of sea creatures: barnacles, salmon, orcas, humpback whales, dolphins, sea jellies and more.  There were even piles of salmon eggs ensuring more fish into the future!  People appeared in the drawings too -- swimming, fishing, riding the ferry. 

And, there were lots of . . . 

 

                

mermaids and sea monsters! 

These magical creatures were more popular than even orcas and salmon. I see this as a poignant sign of healing. If young kids can dream of an ocean filled with mermaids and sea monsters, that means that their reality is not filled with worries of dead whales and missed fishing seasons and sick salmon.  23 years ago, kids hopes were simply that "My family can fish again," "The animals can live in clean water," and "Boat captains should rather drink milk" (as opposed to the alcohol Captain Hazelwood was suspected of consuming before the Exxon Valdez ran aground).  The ecosystem is healing, as is the community of Cordova, and kids are able to dream once again of the magical and the wonderful.   

But as Prince William Sound and the other areas affected by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill continue to demonstrate astounding resilience in the face of such an environmental disaster, it becomes easier to forget the whole awful mess.  This spring and summer, I've met a lot of kids in towns and villages that were hit hard by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.  Some of the kids knew that an oil spill had affected their homes twenty-some years ago; some didn't.  Only a few knew more than the fact that it had happened a while ago. I fear that without the memory of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, the coming generation will be less attentive to oil spill prevention and clean-up preparation.  Crucial lessons were learned in an incredibly hard way during and after the oil spill. As the healing continues, it is imperative that these lessons are not lost.  People my age have a unique perspective on this.  We experienced the oil spill and it's aftermath, but our experience of place is not entirely defined by it.  We know the wonder of this healing ocean, but we also know it's vulnerability.  As a new generation comes of age in coastal Alaska, we must foster their love and wise stewardship of the ocean and all that inhabits it.  Because what could be more magical than an ecosystem teeming with diverse and unique life? 

With the help of this younger generation, our coast will continue to heal into the future, will continue to be a magical place.  A place where orcas spout and dolphins splash.  A place where delicate "sea butterflies" (pteropods) fly through the water and snatch phytoplankton from the currents.  A place where salmon swim hundreds, even thousands of miles to return to their home river.  A place where humpbacks use bubble nets to capture multitudes of sand lance.  A place that people can live, and can love, can fish and kayak and hunt and hike and berry pick.  A place special enough for sea monsters and mermaids to call home. Maybe it will even once again be a place where diminutive Pigeon Guillemots and giant Stellar's Sea Lions abound, feasting on plentiful herring.

More than just the site

 “We are more than just the place closest to the spill.”

Anna spoke these words about her village of Tatitlek, Alaska this morning. They have been echoing in my head ever since.    

“Instead of just doing fly-bys for documentaries, I wish people would talk about how we are family here.”

Although I was only in Tatitlek for 26 hours and 15 minutes, Anna’s words ring true.  I know Tatitlek is more than just the closest community to Bligh Reef, where the oil tanker Exxon Valdez tore open its hull and began spilling oil.

The ferry ride from Valdez to Tatitlek was all blue sky, sunshine, and splashing porpoises until we rounded Bligh Island and tucked towards the village.  Fog enveloped us, and I couldn’t see the village through the fog until the bowline was secure. 

As the fog lifted, though, the beauty of Tatitlek and the surrounding area was revealed.

Snow-covered mountains, trees draped in lichens, gentle waves splashing upon the beach.  Countless eagles glided overhead.  (I would soon find out why.)  Brilliant yellow-and-green skunk cabbage emerged from the sandy snow and brown of last year’s grass.  The brilliant pink of salmonberry blossoms caught my eye.  Thrushes and sparrows filled the air with their springtime trills.  The sky blue onion-domes of the Russian Orthodox Church were adorned with the traditional white cross silhouetted against an even bluer sky. Here – on a gorgeous spring day – everything looked pretty.  Even the trash dumpsters looked beautiful glistening in the sun with a fresh coat of paint

But the physical beauty of Tatitlek is only a small part of why this place is special.

After putting my bags in the IRA council office apartment, I realized I didn’t have much of a plan now that I was actually in Tatitlek.   I’ve developed a bit of a routine for such situations, so I started a kettle of water to boil.  When my tea was ready, I stepped outside to enjoy some more of the beautiful day and figure out what to do next.  While I was trying to find a good place to sit, a woman beckoned to me, “Warmer over here in the sun.”  I joined her by the steps to the mail boxes and we chatted.  The mail plane had arrived soon before, so our spot was popular.  It seemed like I met most of the village on those steps.

I revisited my spot later for an afternoon meal.  A woman waiting outside the post office suggested that a nearby rock would make a perfect lunch table.  She was right.

A call to the school led to a couple of presentations for the local students.  The younger kids seemed excited to have me there.  The older ones were interested to hear some authentic, down-the-bayou Cajun accents.  The teaching aide graciously obliged to an interview, the cook talked with me over coffee, the teachers helped me try to pin down a skiff ride back to Valdez.  Actually, it seemed like the whole village helped me get back to Valdez.

The ferry that brought me to the village doesn’t come back for another two weeks so I was sort of stranded.In need of more apples and keen to take his wife out on the water, the Village Public Safety Officer graciously agreed to take me the 26 miles to Valdez.  The skiff ride was wonderful.  A few gentle bumps as we made our way past glaciers, rocky islets, and green forests. 

The only disappointment from my trip was that I didn’t eat any seal meat.  I’ve eaten seal oil before, but never any actual flesh.  My timing was almost perfect.  The day before I arrived, local hunters had brought in a number of seals (mostly, I heard 3), a sea lion, and a porpoise.  Word of the successful hunt spread quickly as the fresh meat went to kitchens throughout the village.  The eagles heard the news too – the graceful contingent I saw soaring through the air when my ferry arrived were actually headed to the beach to pick away at what was left of the carcasses.  When folks at the IRA Council Office heard I hadn’t eaten seal before, they offered to bring me some.  But they cautioned that it was very rich and I should eat only a bite or two my first time. 

So perhaps it was for the best that my sample of seal slipped everyone’s mind as we tried to figure out skiff rides.  Although I would have been honored to try it, my mostly-vegetarian digestive tract might not have been up to the challenge.  One day, hopefully, I will get to eat seal.  And I'll try to make sure my body is more prepared.

For the time being, though, I was content to experience the “more” that Anna talked about through the friendly greetings I received as I walked around, the gentle sound of waves lapping at the beach in the evening sun, and the smiles I saw when people talked with each other about the delicious seal.

Indeed, Tatitlek is much, much “more than just the place closest to the spill.” Tatitlek is a place of family, and for a brief time, I had the immense honor of being a guest of that family, maybe even a very, very distant cousin-in-law. 

Originally written May 17, 2012

2 years later

Two years ago today, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig operated by BP exploded. 

11 men working on the rig lost their lives that day. 11 families lost their loved ones forever. Let us take a moment to honor and remember them. 

~  Jason Anderson  ~  Roy Wyatt Kemp  ~  Donald Clark  ~  Karl Kleppinger  ~  Shane Roshto  ~  Dewey Revette  ~ 

~  Gordon Jones  ~  Blair Manuel ~  Aaron Dale Burkeen  ~  Stephen Curtis  ~  Adam Weise  ~

 

12 crosses on the beach at Grand Isle, Louisiana: one each for the 11 men killed in the explosion and 1 for the Gulf of Mexico.

And then the oil started spewing out, a total of more than 200 million gallons over the next 12 weeks.  The oil reached about 1,000 miles of shoreline and marsh, from Texas to Florida.  Some of it was skimmed up. Most of it, though, ended up in the water column and on the ocean floor.

No one knows how much, but it is pretty well accepted that a lot of oil (and dispersant) ended up at the bottom of the Gulf and in the water column.  Ask most any kid in a coastal community along the Gulf of Mexico what lives on the bottom of the ocean and they'll begin rattling off favorite seafoods: shrimp, crab, flounder.  This week, scientists lent support to what fishermen and coastal residents have known for months: fish, shrimp, and other seafood are messed up -- suffering from lesions, lacking eyes, hosting other weird deformities.  And they all suspect it is related to the oil.  When I was there, I heard many stories of "eyeless shrimp," but I never saw one because these shrimp had been caught during the last shrimping season, more than 6 months earlier. 

And although this piece of information has dominated headlines about the 2-year memorial of the oil spill, there's plenty more to be concerned about in the Gulf.  While in Bayou La Batre, I saw many of the off-shore shrimping boats soberly return home and tie up indefinitely.  They weren't catching many shrimp -- haven't since the spill -- and it just wasn't worth the price of fuel.  I've talked to kids, and adults, suffering from a myriad of health issues that cropped up in the aftermath of the oil spill and clean up.  I personally picked up nearly a dozen tar balls during a half hour walk on the beach at Grand Isle.  I've talked with fishermen convinced that the seafood they're selling is poisonous; they won't feed it to their family, but they feel they have little choice but to sell it to the public.  Kids have complained to me that they still don't feel safe (or their parents don't feel safe) swimming in the Gulf, bays, and brackish bayous. I've commiserated with people who have lost their businesses and watched their towns dwindle as fewer visitors come to fish, swim, and relax.  I've driven through the village of Isle de Jean Charles, looking at all the homes that have been abandoned as land is lost and waters continue to rise.  I've watched sunset by a "ghost cypress," the stately tree reduced to a skeleton by encroaching saltwater. 

I'm going to go out on a limb here: BP is not responsible for everything bad and scary happening in the Gulf right now. (On the flip side, the oil spill is probably linked to a whole lot of it). For sure, the land loss and saltwater encroachment is caused by complex factors operating over dozens of years (oil killing the marsh plants didn't help though).  That doesn't make these things any less bad and scary.

2 years ago, our public attention turned to the Gulf and we worried over what might happen there.  Now, it seems like we've forgotten all about it.  So, on this 2 year memorial I ask you to start paying attention again.  It is now time to look at what can be done to fix some of what is broken, to reach out to those most in need of help, to stabilize an ecosystem, to preserve an amazing culture and way of life. 

The Grace of a Beader

About a month ago, Erika and I participated in what I have decided to call a "Beading Bee."  We were lucky enough to be invited to join people from communities across the bayous of Louisiana and the country. A number of amazing people were present, including many from Grand Bayou Village, Pointe-au-Chien, Isle de Jean Charles, and Grand Caillou as well as Patience Faulkner from the Native Village of Eyak in Alaska and Nikki Crowe from the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. 

           My octopus bag, resting upon a nutria pelt given to us.

The octopus bag I created, photographed with the pelt of a nutria that was given to Erika and I.

As I sat there, attaching orange and green beads to my double-octopus bag, I thought a lot about what we were doing.  I was having a lot of trouble getting my beads to stay together....my lines wobbled and wiggled.  That was okay for the octopus tentacles (maybe that's why I decided to start with that!), but I wanted more united lines for the borders.  I soon discovered a technique to help with this.  I would start by joining 2-3 beads together on the thread and stitch them into place.  I would continue doing this, 2-3 beads at a time.  The problem, though was that each set of beads wasn't really connected to the last.  The solution: run the thread back through all the beads before tying off -- this united each bead with all the others and helped to pull the work together!

And so, as people from communities in southeast Louisiana and the rest of the United States (and even a man from the Ogoni tribe of the Niger Delta skyped in to share his experience!) arrived to the beading event in ones and twos and threes, I believe a common thread now runs through us. 

Cheesy beading metaphors aside, it truly was an amazing experience, and while very tough and upsetting subjects were discussed, the gathering emanated a feeling of love.  Love for place, love for culture, love for friends old and new.

Some of the stories I hear through Children of the Spills leave me feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and even bitter.  But the community of beaders that gathered last month transformed that.  I haven't lost my determination, my resolve, my passion; but I found a bit more love.  I've realized -- no remembered -- that I am doing this out of love for my place, out of love for people, out of love for all places that people love.  I'm not doing it out of anger, out of hatred towards Exxon or BP.  This project is about healing, not about destroying.

 

I hope that as I move forward, I can do so with grace.  If I can, it is because of this wonderful group of people that shared their beads, wisdom, and patience with me. 

And as I continue, I will strive to remember the words of an amazing woman who also inspires me:

"...grace is honest and true, grace is unapologetic, grace cannot be put on."

- Christy Shake, from Calvin's Story, her journal of the anguish, grief, joy and triumph shared with her son, who suffers from epilepsy.

Celebrate the Gulf

Our last full day on the Gulf Coast, Erika and I participated in the Celebrate the Gulf Festival in Pass Christian, Mississippi.  As we sat in the shade of our borrowed MSU tent, we waited for kids to come by and add their drawings or interviews to the project.  At first, it seemed like our table wouldn't be particularly popular.  We were bypassed by folks headed to the free shrimp samples or hooked by the commanding voice of the woman running the watershed demonstration table (plus she kept saying "COW POOP," which is sure to attract kids.) 

But soon, we found ourselves providing paper and markers to a couple of kids as they created drawings of healing for the Gulf.  And then, a few more kids, and then more!  By the end of the day, our table was a mess ... crayons and colored pencils were strewn everywhere, papers had scattered in the wind.  I had gathered rocks and sticks in a mostly futile attempt to keep things in place.  With each wind gust, parents leapt to hold drawings still as kids finished coloring.

But we embraced it, encouraging kids to not only draw on the paper, but also to add their creativity to our tablecloth -- basically an oversized napkin.  And so at the end of our 5 hours, dozens of kids had created drawings about their wishes for a healthy Gulf of Mexico.  (Nearly 40 of these drawings can be added to the website and future publications.)  A few kids, the youngest seeming to be about 6 years old, also did video interviews to add to the project.  And we had the most colorful table of all!

It was a wonderful way to spend our last day on the Gulf, looking forward to a future that is cleaner, healthier, and filled with lots of FISH!

And because of our glorious tent, we didn't even get too hot, even though temperatures reached 85 degrees. 

23 years later

23 years ago today, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez wrecked upon Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling about 11 million gallons of oil into the water.  The oil, clean-up, and litigation changed countless lives in Alaska.

35 months ago, BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 men working on the rig and spilling about 200 million gallons of oil into the water over the next 2 months.  Thousands of people in the Gulf Coast are living with uncertainty and doubts -- is the seafood safe to eat, will the shrimping be good this year, what is going to happen to the dolphins, what effects do the oil and dispersants have on human health, are the rigs safe to work on now, and on and on and on.

1 day ago, students at Alba Middle School in Bayou La Batre, Alabama got at least a few questions answered and began an important conversation. Earlier in the week, I shared with them some of the spill memories and stories that I gathered in Alaska.  Yesterday, these students skyped with Scott Pegau of the Oil Spill Recovery Institute and Kara Johnson of the Prince William Sound Science Center, both in Cordova, Alaska.  Kara and Scott explained a little bit about the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, how the ecosystem has recovered in Alaska, and some of the similarities and differences between the two spills. 

Then students got a chance to ask questions.  Shy at first, the students were especially interested in how oil might affect fish and other sea life... and fishing.  They had some specific questions, like how bottom-feeders such as flounder might be affected in the Gulf, as well as broader questions, like why more oil got on the beaches in Alaska.  They also asked about the dispersants that were used to break oil up and facilitate dispersal into the water column. 

After the students' questions had been answered, they then had a chance to talk about their own experiences with the BP/Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.  They mentioned many family members and friends that were struggling to make a living as fishers, shrimpers, seafood processors, restaurant-owners, and even oil workers. The students lamented over the loss of delicious seafood (almost half of the students are still nervous about the possible health effects of eating the seafood) and some of their favorite activities -- like swimming and fishing for fun and food.  

At the end of the day, though, we talked about what makes Bayou La Batre and their part of the Gulf special.  The students all listed something that was good that day; many of them mentioned things that were recovering after the oil spill.  We heard it from the Alaskan interviews, from Scott and Kara, and from the students themselves -- although it is a slow process, things do get better after an oil spill. 

For me, this was the perfect way to spend the (day before the) 23 year memorial of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.  I was pretty helpless in 1989; there wasn't much anyone could do, let alone a toddler.  But now, by sharing my own story and the stories of others in Alaska, I believe that some of these kids might be able to heal a little bit faster, help their friends and families a little bit more, and be a little bit stronger as future (and present!) leaders in the recovery.  They are already offering advice to those children that might be affected by an oil spill in the future.  Hopefully no one will ever need to hear it. 

Many people and organizations from Alaska have reached out to folks in the Gulf Coast to help them with clean up and recovery, to share some insight into what life after an oil spill might look like, to offer encouragement.  Children of the Spills is just a small part of something much bigger that is happening through the resiliency and compassion of Alaskans affected by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.

23 years later, we can help.  And we are.  Which is pretty dang cool!

(The press thought this was pretty dang cool too.  Check it out on the local TV channels: NBC or Fox.  Or read about it in the Mobile Press Register.  We may even make it into a PBS documentary to be released next year.)

If you read any of the articles, I need to clarify something: I am not actually a Native Alaskan.  I am from Alaska, born and raised there, but my parents are from Pennsylvania.  I think, if you go way back on my mom's mom's side, you'll eventually find a Native American ancestor.  Although I would be honored to be Native Alaskan, that is not my heritage to claim.  I don't use this phrase to describe myself, but somehow both Erika and I keep getting referred to as such.  The phrase has a different meaning down here, I think, but I just wanted to make sure that no one thinks I am claiming to be something I am not. 

Help

I spent this past weekend with a few kids directly and dramatically affected by the BP/Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and the "clean-up."

Belonging to fishing families, these kids suffered the emotional toll of the spill: uncertainty about the future viability of fishing, economic stress, fears about the safety of local foods, loss of favorite activities, and watching their families struggle with the new reality of life during and after an oil spill.

But they also suffered a physical toll: the list of symptoms they experienced in the after-math of the spilled oil and sprayed dispersants includes everything from chemical rashes to heart irregularities to chronic headaches. 

A link between the spill and the illnesses will be tough to prove. But, even if you are a skeptic, it is clear that these kids need help. The fishermen need help.  The shrimp need help.  The sea turtles need help.  The Gulf needs help.

The kids I sat down with are fighters.  They are feeling better* and are able to laugh, joke, and tell stories about sea gull poop.  They look forward to a brighter future, and they are doing what they can to make things better.  They need some support.

As the two-year anniversary of the spill nears, I hope you can recognize that the oil may not be spewing from the rig anymore, but the reality of the oil spill continues here.  The Gulf needs your help.  We must first acknowledge that it isn't "all better."  Then we can figure out some ways to help it get better.

*Two of the kids I spoke with have completed a somewhat controversial detox program.  The third is currently in the detox process.  They are feeling much better, and credit this program with their regained health. I don't know much about the program.  If you are interested in learning more, I can try to connect you with some people involved with it.*

And the roller coaster takes a plunge ...

Today is Leap Day!  It is an extra day, a chance to catch up on things as necessary, and maybe do something I wouldn't have been able to do otherwise.  This doesn't mean organizing paperwork, compiling budget information, washing dishes, making the bed.  It means taking some extra time to really pay attention to what is going on around me and asking others to take some time to do the same.  

During my time along the Gulf Coast, I've encountered many things that made me sad or frustrated.  Some of them are little -- the "too cool" attitude of many middle school students or the speedometer failing on our car. Some are bigger -- the sadness I feel when I hear about a family that doesn't trust the seafood any more, the frustration and anger that is reignited in me when I listen to people down here talk about how they've been cheated by the claims process.  Most of this I anticipated.

What I didn't anticipate is a problem that breaks my heart.  I didn't anticipate it because I didn't know about it, and I didn't know about it simply because I didn't take the time to ask the right questions.  So today, on Leap Day when we have a little bit of extra time, I'm going to share with you in the hopes that today can mark the day that you start really paying attention to what is going on down here.

People are sick.  People who worked the clean up, people who live in coastal communities, people who swam in oil- and dispersant-contaminated waters.  For many, the symptoms are getting worse, not better.  And sadly, many of those affected are kids.  There are amazing people working here to help those who are ill, but very few resources.   

Now, there are some that would argue that correlation doesn't mean causation: that just because people exposed to oil and dispersants are getting sick, doesn't mean the oil and dispersants caused the illness. And that's true.  There are scientists hard at work trying to figure out (and prove) if there is an actual link. But the fact of the matter is, whatever the reason, a disproportionate number of people in these communities are ill and they aren't getting the help they need.  To me, it doesn't really matter if it is because of the BP oil spill or we're seeing the lingering impacts of Katrina or if there is some other reason for this cluster of suffering.

In the next few weeks, I may have a chance to interview a few of the kids who have gotten ill since the oil spill.  I didn't want to wait until then, though, because I believe this issue needs some serious attention soon.  

I'm still not sure what to do about this.  I can point you to some organizations that might be able to provide more information: LEAN is a good place to start.  But I'd suggest you do some research of your own, looking at sources you feel comfortable with and trust.  You'll find plenty from the summer and fall of 2010, but it might take a little bit more work to find information about what is going on now. 

But, today is an extra day!  Today is the day that you can decide to pay a little more attention to what is happening here.  Sick children are just one heart-wrenching part of the story. The oil disaster is not over.  But you can help to restore the Gulf and it's ecosystems, including the people that call it home! 

Roller Coaster

Well, I've been along the Gulf Coast for about a month now.  Most of my time so far was spent in coastal Louisiana, and I just headed east to Mississippi and Alabama.  It feels like I've been down here for ages.  So much has happened, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around all of it.  There have been times when I've laughed so hard my stomach hurt.  Moments when my eyes filled with tears. Days that I couldn't get the smile off my face, and days when I just wanted to scream in anger and frustration.  I'll start with the happy, fun stuff.  I still haven't quite figured out how to constructively talk about the parts that make me want to cry or punch through a window.

Erika (my sister) has been with me for most of the trip.  It has been great to have her along, not only for the company and shared driving responsibilities, but also because she is a total data nerd and was really excited when I "let" her do my coding for me.  You can see some of her work in the ideas section. 

We've had some great adventures, attending Mardi Gras parades in both Houma and New Orleans.

While visiting with the ladies at the town hall in Grand Isle, Louisiana, Erika "got the baby" in her piece of King Cake.  Traditionally, whoever finds the tiny plastic figurine in their piece has to bring the next King Cake.  So we made the 3 hour round trip drive a week later to deliver a new King Cake. 

We got to go on a wetlands tour with Captain Wendy, also know as Bayou Woman.  She wrote a really wonderful blog post about our visit, with some great pictures.  Until I have more time, you'll have to read her version. We saw TWO alligators!

And we got to meet some really amazing people that have inspired me to keep going through the rough days.  Especially the young people that are working to protect and restore the place they call home.  A shout-out to the amazing high schoolers at Sassafras LA and F.L.A.G. that have decided that they can and must do something for this over-burdened and under-appreciated part of the country.

Also getting some good press and feedback, which is nice.  Check out the article in the Houma Today.  Pretty spot on, although I wouldn't say I'm quite from a "family of fishermen."  I guess I've got dad and then Jim for a couple years, Erika for a few summers, me for one summer.  If you count all the folks that stayed with us this summer as "family" and the personal-use crab pot we used for two weeks as "fishing" then yeah, I'm from a family of fishermen!

Anyway, I'm off now but wanted to share a few of our continued adventures.

Thank You

It was about a year ago that I decided that Children of the Spills, referred to at that point simply as "a project about youth and oil spills" was going to happen.  I had already spent a couple months calling, e-mailing, and sitting down with people, trying to figure out if the project really had merit.  In early 2011, I finally made the commitment to it.  I didn't have funding yet, but I decided not to apply for a job in the fall.  Children of the Spills would be my job.  

A year later, the project has blossomed into something real.  Nearly 50 people have participated in oral history interviews, and countless more have been part of informal conversations about the effects of oil spills on kids.  I've been on the phone all week, speaking with educators, after-school program directors, youth group leaders, researchers, scientists, community organizers, artists, and counselors in preparation for my upcoming trips to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.  A part of me can't believe this is actually happening!  But it is. 

And it couldn't have happened without the generous and amazing support of many people and organizations.  So thank you to everyone who has helped me along the way.  Since the beginning, I have found encouragement and support from a diverse array of people throughout the United States and even beyond. You know who you are, and I hope you know just how important every piece of advice, every loaned book, every smile has been.

I'd especially like to thank those organizations that made the substantial in-kind or monetary contributions that allowed the project to get off the ground:

And I am forever grateful to the individuals and families that have graciously donated to the project:

  • Benjamin Gibson
  • Bob Shavelson and Miranda Weiss
  • Chris and Pat Moss
  • Deb Lowney and Ralph Brosches
  • Erika Gavenus
  • Francie Roberts
  • Gary and Suzanne Gavenus
  • Paul Mackie and Tracy Asselin
  • Ilene Baskette with Boat House Buddies

Thanks also to Switgard Deusterloh & Stephen Bodnar and Kristin & Danny Carpenter who all provided a cozy (and free!) home-base during my travels.  And of course my parents, Paul Gavenus and Ginny Espenshade who allowed me to come home to my high school bedroom, kept me well-fed, didn't get too grumpy when I transformed the dining room table into my personal office, helped me to decipher hard-to-understand mumbles while transcribing interviews, and generally put up with me.  I didn't even have to pay rent, although they did threaten a few times!

A New Airstrip

I haven't written on this blog about my trip to Nanwalek.  I didn't know how to.  It didn't seem like what happened there was really my story to tell.  It still doesn't feel like my story, but I can share what I know.

I had been in Nanwalek for about four hours when it happened.  The day was a bit blustery.  My flight over with Homer Air was bumpy; we had been delayed for a couple hours that morning because of snow, low visibility, and wind, but finally had been able to make the trip across.  I had made arrangements with a local man who was going to help introduce me to people, but I found out upon arrival that he was busy with two sick kids.  Instead, I found my way to the Village Office/Community Center, where I stumbled into the middle of the weekly Elder Tea.  Within half an hour, I had begun an interview.  I was in the middle of the fourth interview of the day when it happened.

We heard yelling.  

A small plane had crashed into the cold waters of the Bay. 

I arrived at the beach a few minutes later, slush splashing under my boots, heart pounding, tears forming in my eyes, a blanket clutched in my hands.  By that time, the three passengers and pilot were all out of the plane.  Wet, cold, and shivering most of them were already wrapped in blankets.  They were loaded up into trucks and four-wheelers and taken to the Village Clinic.  The tail of the plane showed in the water, about 100 feet offshore.  The people on board had swum and then waded to safety, assisted by the folks that got to the beach first.  It seemed as if the entire Village was there, ready to help in whatever way they could.  Once everyone was safe, attention turned to fastening the plane to the shore so it wasn't washed away by the tides.  Sometime later that day or the next, it was hauled onto a boat trailer and brought onto land.

Everyone was safe.  It was over, but it wasn't at all over.

I can't fathom the panic that must have coursed through the veins of those in the plane as it hit the water.  I can't imagine the terror that filled the hearts of the people in Nanwalek as they watched their family, friends, neighbors plunge downward to the Bay.

I learned later, still a little shaky from the whole thing, that this is not a completely rare occurrence in Nanwalek.  Planes have crashed here before, and sometimes, tragically, the casualties have been much worse. 

When I flew out two days later, I was anxious.  I was also sad to leave Nanwalek; despite the upsetting event, people there had been kind, welcoming, and friendly to me.  As I waited for the plane in the leaky shack at the end of the airstrip, people came by in trucks and on four-wheelers to see if packages had arrived earlier that day.  They waved, chirped "Hi," struck up conversation.  I plan to go back this spring.

After I clambered aboard the plane, it was time to take off.  I held my breath.  We made it, clearing the cliffs with only a few lurching bumps and arcing upwards and around towards Port Graham.  I looked down at the forest below, thinking of plans for a new airstrip between Nanwalek and Port Graham.  I've never been so sure that trees should be cut down.  For the people living in these villages, small planes are often a critical connection, bringing medicine, food, and supplies.  Especially in winter months when taking a skiff becomes an especially dangerous and cold affair, planes are the primary way to leave the village -- for important medical care, visiting family, or just having some fun.  The new airstrip between Port Graham and Nanwalek would make it all a bit safer and hopefully a little less nerve-wracking.

My thoughts are with the people of Nanwalek as they continue to heal and recover from the horror of a plane going down in the water.