2010 - %3, July

"All I Wanted Was to See Happy Faces"

| Thu Jul. 29, 2010 8:36 PM EDT

The last time I saw Julie, she was agitated and having trouble taking deep breaths. That was a month ago, at a group therapy session for the wives of fishermen, where they discussed the anxiety, depression, and anger caused by the oil spill and the sudden disruption of their families' livelihood. That was when I named Julie "Julie" to protect the identity of her husband, who she said had talked about hunting down BP CEOs. But today, she's mostly pleased as pie.

"I owe my daughter four years' worth of birthday parties. One year we was in a FEMA trailer, one year we had to use the money to fix the boat trouble, another year we had [Hurricane] Gustav, another year we had the problems with the boat again. So I owe her four parties, and this is like a great, big party."

I've caught up with the fishermen's wives at a day camp they've organized at J.F. Gauthier Elementary School in St. Bernard, Louisiana, and there's hot dogs, barbecue burgers, chips, baseball, water guns, and a bouncy-castle waterslide. Earlier this month, Julie and Brenda, another woman I met at the therapy session, organized three days of entertainment for about 60 local kids with the help of the St. Bernard Project, a community organization founded in the wake of Katrina. Julie surveys the kids running around and squealing in bathing suits with her hands on her hips. "We wanted to give them something to do, something fun. Normally, they'd be fishing with their dads. Fishing, swimming in the bayou, aggravating dad on the boat." All the food and entertainment is donated, the product of endless phone calls and solicitations. "I haven't even been thinking about the oil spill these last two weeks. I've just been trying to get something to do for the kids."

The donations go well beyond picnic fare. Inside the school gym, big cardboard boxes are piled along the walls. Earlier this morning, pickup trucks pulled up and volunteers helped unload a miscellany of hastily assembled aid: Many bottles of water. Huge stacks of Levis in a several sizes. Bratz-branded tennis shoes, kids' slippers with Shrek on them. Kitchen disinfectant. About a million Band-Aids. Women walk the perimeter carrying Mastercard tote bags someone dropped off, filling them with anything they can use. None of the Levis are in Julie's size. Someone else complains that the tennis shoes are only for girls and the baby shoes are only for boys.

"We really need diapers and school supplies," Julie tells me. "School's coming up, and a lot of people are gettin' worried about buying uniforms." (Here, all schoolchildren have to wear uniforms.) With BP's claims checks coming late or in vastly reduced amounts, unemployed fishermen's families may be low on cash. Catholic Charities has been picking up some of the slack, giving away millions of dollars worth of grocery vouchers and rent assistance, but many people still need basics like toiletries and clothes.

"Also," Julie says, "we need people who aren't affected to stop coming and taking the donations from those in need." She lowers her voice. "Like this gang behind you."

I've already talked to the women she's referring to as they sorted through free low-quality tank tops; they are indeed not spill victims. And in this still-drowned-out part of town—the houses across the street from the school still bear the National Guard's post-Katrina spray-paint markings—"need" is sort of a relative term. One of the women looking at tank tops recently moved out of a FEMA trailer. She asked me nervously if there were any school uniforms available or if I knew when or where she might be able to get some. But right now, in this gym full of children dragging each other around on empty cardboard boxes, need refers only to people who may still be struggling from the last rash of disasters and have been smacked by Deepwater Horizon.

The wives' next project, Brenda tells me back outside, is a weekend-long fundraiser. It may involve a car wash with the kids, among other things. They're still trying to get donations to put on another camp in August, trying to get the kids involved in the planning—"the water balloons we have here were their idea"—trying to find someone to spring for the uniforms. She has no idea what to do about the larger and longer-term issues. "All these kids, by the time they're in high school, they're workin'. As soon as they're of age, they work on a boat. When they're in high school, they earn enough money to buy cars. By the time they get outta high school, they buy a boat."

She's quiet about that for a moment, then waves her hand dismissively. "Anyway, settin' this up was a lot of time. I been so busy. It just kept my mind off the oil spill. I wanted to do something I knew I could make it happen, and all I wanted was to see happy faces."

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Mainstream Media Helps BP Pretend There's No Oil

| Wed Jul. 28, 2010 2:07 PM EDT

"WASHINGTON (AFP) – With BP's broken well in the Gulf of Mexico finally capped, the focus shifts to the surface clean-up and the question on everyone's lips is: where is all the oil?"

NEW ORLEANS (Mother Jones) – I don't know who the fuck these everyones are, but I'm happy to help out them, and ABC, and this AFP reporter writing that due to BP's stunningly successful skimming and burning efforts, "the real difficulty now is finding any oil to clean up."

I sent one text message to Bloomberg's Lizzie O'Leary, who's standing on Grand Isle, Louisiana, right now, asking how the beach looks. "Lower part past the barrier untouched with globs of oil that washed up last night," she said. By "untouched," she means by cleanup crews, and that "barrier" she's talking about is the one the press isn't allowed past. I sent another text to Drew Wheelan, who's also in Southwestern Louisiana, doing bird surveys for the American Birding Association, asking him how big the biggest tar mat on Grand Terre—the scene of those now famous horrifying oiled-bird photos—is. "20 feet by 15," he said. "But bigger ones submerged slightly."

If I managed to find that much oil with my BlackBerry without getting dressed or leaving the house, let's hope Thad Allen, who is quoted in the article as saying, "What we're trying to figure out is where is all the oil at and what can we do about it," can locate some more with the staff and craft of the United States Coast Guard at his disposal. As for the reporter's alarmingly unsubstantiated claim that "The beaches should be relatively painless to mop up," I can't even count the number of correspondents down here who've pointed out that digging a finger under the surface of supposedly clean sand turns up crude, or the number of cleanup workers who've said cleanup efforts are strictly cosmetic, or that no matter what they do the contamination just keeps bubbling up.

It's BP's job to whitewash this story and make it easier to indulge the desire to forget about the scope of the devastation, guys. Not the media's.

BP Cleanup Workers Gone Wild

| Thu Jul. 22, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

I hear about the race riot at Daddy's Money almost as soon as I arrive on Grand Isle, Louisiana. My friend and I are going to the bar tonight to catch the "female oil wrestling" oil-spill cleanup workers have been packing in to see on Saturday nights. When we stop by the office of the island's biggest seafood distributor, he tells us that two days ago a bunch of black guys and a bunch of white guys got into a big fight at the bar. It spilled out all over the street and had to be broken up by a ton of cops.

According to the Census, 1,541 people live in this slow Southern resort town. An estimated 3 percent of them are black. That was before the spill. The seafood guy gestures in the direction of the floating barracks being built on barges in the bay to house the lower-skilled cleanup workers, and says that people think the barracks will keep those workers—who are mostly black—from "jumping off" onto dry land and causing trouble.

That night, dozens of men in race-segregated packs crowd around to watch strippers dance around and then tussle inside the bouncy inflatable ring set up inside Daddy's Money. Female oil wrestlers need, obviously, to be oiled. Plastic cups full of baby oil are being auctioned off, along with the right to rub their contents all over one of the thong-bikinied gals. "I hope there's no dispersant in that oil!" someone quips. The bidding before the first match starts at $10; it ends pretty quickly when some kid offers $100.

"He outbid me!" the guy next to me yells. His name is Cortez. He bid $80. He has dollar bills tucked all the way around under the brim of his hat, and piles of them in his fist. He has spent $200 of his $1,000 paycheck already tonight. "I am coming here every Saturday from now on," he says. He gestures expansively at the scene—writhing women; hollering, money-throwing men. "Sponsored by BP!" he yells, laughing, then throws his arms around me and grabs my ass.

Upstairs, on the open-air deck, the supervisors and professional contractors drink. One comes over to talk; he calls me a Yankee when I don't get that when he says "animals" he means black guys. Another tells us about the crime-prone "monkeys." I have already stopped counting how many times I've heard the n-word on Grand Isle today.

Robbing New Orleans to Pay for BP's Spill

| Thu Jul. 15, 2010 12:38 AM EDT

The New Orleans house I'm sitting in at the moment is finished with meticulous detail: cypress crown molding and trim, recycled loblolly-pine posts, Art Deco Oriental rugs. To my left, there's a bathroom with wood wainscoting and a refinished 100-year-old claw-foot bathtub on a decorative-tile-lined platform. Almost exactly five years ago, all of this was submerged by toxic floodwaters. Its restoration was made possible by two years of sweat, occasional tears, and a Road Home grant from the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

Now a supplemental appropriations bill that passed the House earlier this month would take $400 million from post-Katrina recovery programs like Road Home in order to fund other projects, including $304 million for Deepwater Horizon-related remediation and investigation. To some Louisiana residents, using any taxpayer money, much less hurricane-relief money, to clean up BP's oil just adds insult to injury. "Any provisions related to the spill should be paid for by the responsible party," says Monika Gerhart, director of policy and government relations for the Equity and Inclusion Campaign, a nonpartisan advocacy organization. "We're not yet recovered. So don't take our housing money."

For anyone who hasn't been to New Orleans lately, here's an update: It still needs so much work that visitors pay to take "disaster tours." In a June 7 letter to the House Committee on Appropriations, Louisiana Recovery Authority Chairman David Voelker pleaded that the rescission of already-dedicated rebuilding funds be stricken from the bill. Without them, Voelker estimates, 19,000 homes statewide will go unrestored, nearly 7,000 of them in Orleans Parish. "If you just drive around, you can see the people need it," says Taylor Henry, communications director for Republican Congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao, whose district includes New Orleans.

The appropriations bill does provide $5.1 billion to FEMA, which could theoretically pay for projects such as rebuilding New Orleans' Charity Hospital or go to city schools that are still waiting for their disaster-relief funds. Or the money could go elsewhere. An executive summary from appropriations chairman Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.) notes that the FEMA funds might go toward efforts to clean up after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike, and Gustav, as well as the Midwest floods of 2008 and California wildfires. "The way the money will be used will be up to FEMA's discretion," says House appropriations committee representative Ellis Brachman.

Rep. Cao, like every other member of Congress from Louisiana but one, voted nay on the appropriations bill. (Cao also has the distinction of basically telling the president of BP America that he should have to stab himself to death during a congressional hearing last month.) Democrat Charlie Melancon was the only rep who voted for it. Though he argued against the cutting the rebuilding funds, according to a statement on his website, he supports spending for other provisions in the bill, like funding the Afghanistan surge and assisting those impacted by the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Rep. Melancon's communications director says that he is "working with Sen. Landrieu, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, to remove the cuts from the final legislation so Louisiana can continue to rebuild homes damaged or destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita." Likewise, Cao's spokesman says that "We're doing all we can to persuade our friends in the Senate not to pass this."

If the Senate does approve the cuts, it could be bad news for a lot of New Orleans neighborhoods. Like the one I'm staying in. This house has been painstakingly restored. But both the houses I can see out my front door are abandoned.

How Many Oil-Spill Victims Is BP Cutting Compensation To?

| Tue Jul. 13, 2010 2:06 PM EDT

On Saturday, the head of Louisiana's Department of Children and Family Services sent a letter to Ken Feinberg, the federal government's oil-spill compensation czar, informing him that BP has slashed its payments to 40,000 Gulf Coast residents who have taken an economic hit from the disaster. This morning, BP issued a statement saying that news reports citing the 40,000 figure were inaccurate; the actual number, it said, was 4,000. 

Those news reports got their stats right out of the DCFS letter to Feinberg. So where did DCFS get the 40,000 figure? From BP. "It was in a face-to-face meeting," Trey Williams, DCFS's communications director, told me after I read him BP's statement. (BP sent it to me after repeated requests for comment; Williams hadn't yet heard from the company.) When I pointed out that it seemed that BP was implying the DCFS people present at that meeting had misheard, he thought that was pretty funny, in a sad and frustrating way.

BP spokesman John Curry says he doesn't know whether the company originally gave DCFS a bad estimate or if DCFS just misunderstood. Either way, he says, "We've taken a look, and it's only about 4,000 that will be affected." The company says it is only cutting off claimants who haven't turned in required paperwork.

Altogether, some 100,000 people are receiving loss-of-income checks from BP. The initial payment to a fishing boat captain was $5,000 a month; deckhands got $2,500. As of July 1, recpients who haven't submitted adequate proof of income get $1,000 a month. The problem, according to DCFS's letter, is that BP does not consider many claimants' records acceptable. The department wants the oil company to accept "alternative forms of documentation," such as records from the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Curry says BP hopes to work with claimants to get their payments back up to previous amounts. "We are committed to making it right," he says. "We'd prefer it get down to zero people with reduced payments. Even one is one too many."

But keeping the checks coming isn't enough. Even before BP's recent payment cuts went into effect, "The checks just aren't covering what these people normally would have made," says Corinne Knight, associate communications director of Catholic Charities New Orleans. The DCFS's letter to Feinberg echoes that concern. The department also says that BP has sent payments to only half of the people who have requested them and hasn't hired enough claims adjusters to efficiently deal with the demand. Additionally, it says BP didn't notify any state authorities that it would be cutting some payments and only writes more claims checks in periods of heavy official pressure.

In the meantime, the disaster's victims are struggling. Last week, Catholic Charities New Orleans alone was serving 17,000 people. "We're providing a lot of direct financial assistance," says Knight. The organization's five Louisiana oil-spill relief centers help cover rent and utilities and dole out $100 grocery vouchers. They started disseminating them via a lottery system to keep people from standing outside for four or five hours in the middle of the night to be first in line for the limited number. But the upshot is the same: Every day, plenty of families who need the vouchers don't get them. A coalition of 30 nonprofits providing essential relief has applied for a $12 million grant from the BP. Knight says that the money, if received, will cover all of 90 days of assistance.

Fun With Fact-Checking for Condoleezza Rice

| Thu Jul. 8, 2010 4:53 PM EDT

Earlier this year, when we were getting ready to ship the Mother Jones excerpt from my book about refugees from Burma, Clara Jeffery called me into her office. There's a part in the article about how many of the refugees couldn't get asylum in the United States because they were considered terrorists (long story), at least until Condoleezza Rice signed some waivers that allowed the immigration of tens of thousands of them. "How did this issue end up on Rice's desk?" Clara asked me. I had little doubt that the lobbying of Christian groups was involved (many Burmese in Thai refugee camps are Christian), but I said I didn't really know, because I didn't. But do you know who else doesn't know? Condoleezza Rice. Her personal researcher, Leisel Bogan, just called me and said that Rice would like to know if I had any idea how this issue ended up on her desk.

"We were on a plane," Bogan explained, "and I was reading the Wall Street Journal review of your book and showed it to her, and she said, 'This looks really interesting; we should get it.' Bogan did not mention whether Condi's interest had anything to do with the Journal's somewhat gratuitously calling me "a profane young bisexual from Ohio," but in any case, it turned out that "Your book was the most informative I've read." And since I had 67 pages of source info, I was also obviously a superanal geek. So when they needed some backstory about US-Burma policy for Rice's upcoming book, Bogan rang my bell.

Bogan and I did some constructive brainstorming that I think will lead her to what they need. Time will tell how accurate my speculations about the waiver's history are. But in the meantime, knowing that Rice couldn't have answered Clara's question makes me feel like less of a slacker for not knowing, either.

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Did You Know Tar Balls Glow Orange Under UV Light?

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Rip Kirby's got the 365-nanometer UV flashlight and I've got the shovel. He's a grad student in the University of South Florida's geology department, and we're standing on Pensacola Beach in the middle of the night digging a hole so he can show me the layers of tar buried beneath new sand the tide has washed up. Some of the tar mat is so thick that it's visible to the naked eye. Other traces of contamination are so subtle that they can only be seen with Kirby's ultraviolet light, which makes crude fluoresce an unnaturally bright orange.

 


Photos: Rip Kirby, Alexander Higgins, Mac McClelland


We trek around Pensacola Beach with the oversize light, illuminating oil everywhere: on decks, driveways, boardwalks, handrails. Blobs of it, smears of it, perfect imprints of footprints glowing neon, far beyond the waves washing oil from the Deepwater Horizon leak ashore. "The problem," says Kirby, who works with USF's Coastal Research Lab, "is that they're not using proper decontamination practices in the cleanup. What they should be doing is stopping the workers at the edge of the contamination area"—the shore within the reach of the waves—"and having them get totally cleaned up or stripped down before they walk away."

He complains about the machines that drive around collecting sand in giant sifters that are supposed to collect the tar balls while redepositing the pretty white sand. "But the sifters are breaking up the tar balls and spreading them all over the place," Kirby says. "This operation and the traffic are spreading the contamination everywhere."

The "traffic" would refer to tourists. Though Pensacola was hardly at full capacity this 4th of July weekend, there were plenty of beachgoers out. "We're having fun at the Hampton Inn Pensacola Beach!" the reservations clerk at the Hampton answers. In the lobby, the lady in the asymmetrical top on HLN says the beaches are closed; past the blaring TV, families outside frolic in the emerald surf. As the hotel desk will tell you, the beach is indeed technically open. The Escambia County Health Department has erected some signs warning people to "avoid" swimming, and that children and pregnant women should avoid the area altogether. I drove down 15 miles of beach and saw only two such warnings. It's definitely possible I missed some—they're about the size of a sheet of computer paper.


"Did y'all go swimming?" I ask a couple coming off the beach in swimsuits and towels. They did. Did they see this sign, I ask, pointing? They lean in closer. They didn't. "Oh!" the woman says. "Well, lotsa people are swimmin' out there, and it seems fine."

It does. But for the tar balls, Pensacola Beach is still jaw-droppingly gorgeous. And the messages coming out of local government are confusing. The little signs on the beach say "oil product" is present and dangerous even if it's not visible. But health department director John Lanza made comments to the Miami Herald urging people to stay out of the water only if they saw oil in it or felt it on their skin while swimming. He also said, "We are not advising that anyone go in the water," right before he said, "If you really want to go into the water, you're welcome to do that.'' He admitted that the EPA hadn't yet determined if the water is safe, but not that the University of West Florida Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation is consistently finding crude in its water samples. Nor did he acknowledge that there appears to be no information available about the presence of BP's dispersants, which, tourists may or may not know, with excessive repeated exposure can make your red blood cells explode.

The director of the Louisiana ACLU has pointed out that it's nobody's business to forbid you from rolling around in tainted sand if you're so inclined, any more than government officials can slap a cigarette out of your mouth. But as with warnings on cigarette packs, it is government officials' responsibility to make clear how seriously you could be compromising your health.

"Being on the beach will cause respiratory problems," a woman at the Escambia County citizens' information line told me. "A lot of people who've been in contact with the oil are having that." When I ran that past the county public information officer, she said she had no idea what I was talking about, and that neither the EPA nor the health department had advised the county to shut down the beach. The Escambia County commissioner says he's "not afraid to close the beach'' if he gets "the right kind of information." But, understandably, he doesn't "want to err on the side of putting several people into bankruptcy.'' One anonymous health department employee knows that Pensacola's economics will continue to temper the official messages about possible health effects. "The only way this beach is going to close," he admitted to a group of environmentalists, "is if it's on fire." In the meantime, the top of the Escambia Disaster Response web page announces, "The beaches are open and ready for business!"

And so, there are people everywhere, under the impression that they're "fine," picking up and spreading contamination, the full extent of which is visible only under Kirby's UV light. One of the resorts has put up oil-washing stations on its beaches—not, according to the accompanying signs, for health reasons, but so you don't bring it into the buildings. The pier is packed with tourists fishing. When I arrive there, someone has just caught a blacktip reef shark longer than me. I join the crowd to watch the fisherman wrestle it onto its side, pin it beneath his knees, and start stabbing it to death. Just a few yards further down the pier, another fisherman has snared another one, almost as big. He picks it up by the tail, and when I turn my face away before he can swing it face-first into a wooden post, I see that the guy watching next to me is also wincing.

"This is horrible," I say to him.

"Yeah," he nods, but then reconsiders, and relaxes his furrowed brow. "Though I guess with all this oil, it was just gonna die anyway."