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Back from the Gulf

All media happily captured at Miramar Beach, FL during the week of October 24, 2010.

The sand was thick and soft and white.  Even a light step was easily molded.  I spent the week hoping that the impression of my fractured second toe wouldn’t appear gargantuan against the delicate imprint of the sandpipers that walked close beside me.

Faced with the clear, emerald waters of northern Florida, it’s easy to put aside memories of the disaster that threatened the Gulf waters, coast, and wildlife, and that continues to damage the coastal economy.  It was only six months ago that an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig led to eleven deaths and the uncontrolled spill of nearly five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  It has only been three months since the spill was first arrested; the well was finally confirmed sealed on September 19.

After a night of high winds and turbulent surf, a reddish brown stain appeared on the sand outside my vacation rental, and I did wonder whether oil had been uncovered from deeper waters.  There were no tar balls on the northern Florida beach, however, and no other reminder of the oil spill disaster.  In contrast, “Operation Deep Clean” along the Alabama coastline has recently mobilized heavy equipment to remove tar balls buried in the sand, and the Louisiana coast is still described as “heavily oiled” in some parts.  While the active leak has been sealed, important clean-up work remains.

The economic impact of the spill has been considerable.  Fishing waters were restricted immediately after the accident, and have gradually been restored.  Hotels and restaurants that are usually filled during the summer vacation season were significantly impacted.  Hotel occupancy rates in Florida were down 30% this summer due to the perception of oil on the beaches. 

BP (British Petroleum) has set the end of 2010 as the target for full restoration of the pristine Gulf coast beaches.  Assuming that target is reached, and visual reminders of the oil spill are removed, I think that the challenge is then to keep the accident in the forefront of our collective public memory.

During the height of the crisis, photographs of the burning rig and plumes of oil were ready evidence of the damage done.  During the summer and early fall, beach restoration efforts have been in full public view.  Well publicized and well attended Gulf front concerts that featured stars including Jimmy Buffett, Brad Paisley, and Alan Jackson heightened awareness of the crisis and brought visitors and customers to the coast.  Alabama spokesperson Taylor Hicks lent his name and face to the cause, earnestly imploring Americans to “…see this catastrophic disaster through from beginning to the end”.

What is the end of this disaster?  Is it over when the beaches are clean, and no visible signs of the spill remain?  Is it over when the Gulf coast economy rebounds, when the hotels are full and the fishing boats again make daily trips?

Is this disaster ended when we insist upon and enforce stringent practice and safety standards that will minimize the likelihood of another blowout?  Or is this disaster finally over when acceptable sources of “clean” energy become available and offshore drilling in the Gulf is ended?

On October 12, the Obama administration ban on exploratory drilling in the Gulf of Mexico was lifted.  Reportedly, new requirements will make it more difficult to obtain a permit to drill.  Companies will be required to meet new standards for well design and demonstrate disaster readiness.  Safety equipment, including blowout preventers, will have to meet engineering standards and be independently certified.  Oil company chief executives will be required to personally guarantee that their rigs satisfy all applicable safety and environmental regulations.

Are these changes enough to ensure the health of the Gulf, and the well-being of those who depend on the Gulf for their livelihoods?  I don’t know.  I do think that we have a responsibility to remember what has happened, to continue to ask questions and to insist upon answers, even and especially when the sequelae of the oil spill are no longer clearly visible in the sand or headlined in the evening news.

For more on the oil spill disaster, efforts to stem the leak, and effects on wildlife, read here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/05/25/us/20100525-topkill-diagram.html

For more on lingering effects of the spill along the Gulf coast, read here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130878588

For more on the moratorium on deepwater drilling, and new government regulations, read here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/13/us/13drill.html?_r=1

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. hicksfan7 #

    Excellent editorial, with good information, lovely pictures, and so much to think about. Loved the 20 second video of the hopefully oil-free tide rolling in.

    November 3, 2010
  2. tishtx #

    I’m glad you had a wonderful vacation in Florida. Thanks for remembering the other Florida coast and all the difficulties the Gulf coast has gone through recently.

    With just that little bit of video though, I’m wondering how you made yourself to home. 🙂

    November 3, 2010
  3. NolaMar #

    Beautiful pictures. I’m glad things are looking better for the coast. It broke my heart to see the tar and oil stains back during the summer when I went over. I’m concerned about the “red stain” in the morning that you mentioned. I pray the tougher regulations will be enough to keep something like this from ever happening again.

    November 3, 2010
  4. Beautiful photos and I loved the video. It felt like I was there.

    People who live along the coast want the drilling to continue because it provides a lot of jobs. But this accident should never have happened. It was so tragic. I feel for the families of the 11 who were killed.

    But your write up and photos give me hope that everything can return to normal as far as the beaches go.

    November 3, 2010
  5. Thank you all for reading, and for commenting. For a flavor of the spill’s impact on Orange Beach, AL, take a look at these photos, taken by NolaMar in July 2010: http://tinyurl.com/2343vse

    November 3, 2010
  6. NolaMar #

    Caryl is right about the jobs. The economic impact to the gulf states, on top of the tragic loss of lives, has been horrible. The fishing, oil, and tourism industries all work together in cooperation. They were all devastated by this “accident” that never should have happened – but DID happen due to neglect on the part of many. Seeing your picture of the red stain that came in with the morning tide makes me fear the the ecological impact remains, and will remain, for some time.

    November 3, 2010
  7. Louise #

    Thanks for an insightful recap of your travels to the Gulf Coast. This is going to affect the region and the people for years and years, just like Katrina did. Praying that they can recover and sustain their way of life once again and soon.

    Thanks for a peek into your vacay. It sure is beautiful there. I didn’t see much of the beach when I went to Ft. Walton b/c it rained for 4 days so maybe next time.

    November 3, 2010

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