The Rights Stuff

Sticking a Happy Face on Katrina

| Thu Aug. 26, 2010 4:00 AM PDT

The most upsetting statement that I'd seen in the news since I'd come back to the Gulf Coast was made by a reporter who (like many others) glibly declared that three months into the Deepwater Horizon debacle, "the real difficulty" BP and the Coast Guard were experiencing was "finding any oil to clean up." That was until last weekend, when a Washington Post article announced that, five years after Hurricane Katrina, a visitor to New Orleans "had to go looking for traces of its destruction."

It's true that New Orleans has come a long way since 2005. The population is up to 336,000, more than 100,000 shy of pre-Katrina numbers but still 50,000 more people than were here in 2007. Brad Pitt has indeed constructed some fabulous new houses in the 9th Ward; huge strides have been made in not just rebuilding, but reforming, the public education system; and 67 percent of residents say they've recovered from the storm. Though that leaves a lot of people who haven't, it's 8 percent more than two years ago.

But a couple of months ago, I brought one of my friends from San Francisco here to visit me—a gal who ingests a lot of news—and she could not believe the extent of the destruction she saw. It's awfully irresponsible to say all that stuff about recovery without also mentioning that you can't even count the blocks that are still half-full of empty, broke-down houses, or that Pitt's 50 new houses dot an area that lost 4,000—an area people sometimes compare to Hiroshima because its torn-up roads, total lack of streetlights, and abundance of overgrown lots contribute to a vast and penetrating emptiness.

It's also irresponsible to not mention that the triumphs in primary and secondary education coexist with an absolute tragedy in New Orleans' colleges. The University of New Orleans is preparing for a 35 percent budget cut. In the spring, its students threw a funeral for higher education; its faculty couldn't make copies for lack of supplies. Delgado Community College—another school attended by large numbers of minority and poor students—has had to turn applicants for the fall term away because several buildings, including the library, are still hurricane-damaged. This breakdown isn't just preventing the city from retaining its college-bound youth, it's costing precious dollars: A recent survey of potential investors showed that the No. 1 reason they decided to not establish businesses in the area is the lack of a qualified workforce.

Those omissions are just as inexcusable as announcing that most of BP's oil is gone without admitting that the estimate is wild, or that the "gone" part ignores miles of oil out of sight underwater, or that even if those optimistic numbers are accurate, the remaining spill is still many times larger than the Exxon Valdez dump. Or printing that Gulf seafood is safe, without adding the caveat that the FDA's assessment is based on eating fewer shrimp a week than you'd find in one shrimp cocktail— and without mentioning at all that no one's testing the seafood for highly toxic dispersants.

Telling only the happy half of the story isn't just a disservice to some abstract principle like truth or fairness; it's a very real disservice to the people on the ground. When FEMA and the Red Cross failed to help me after I evacuated during Katrina, sympathetic doctors and well-meaning strangers and weepy mall-store managers gave me contact lenses, money, and pants because they knew how screwed I was from watching the intense and moving news coverage. It's not clear who's going to help the oil-spill victims—who, for the record, never got help from FEMA or the Red Cross—when the party responsible for taking care of them stops paying or doesn't pay at all. Will they get more assistance in their long recovery than New Orleans does now, five years later?

I know. I don't really want to have to talk about how traumatized an unemployed fisherman's wife is, either. I want to celebrate that New Orleans is still—God bless it, maddest props to it—the historically significant and culturally rich city where you turn on your computer and one of the available wireless networks is called "plessy," because your next-door neighbor is a descendant of Homer Plessy, as in Plessy v. Ferguson. But it is also the type of city where, several weeks ago, the Plessys ran out of their house to holler to the five squad cars' worth of cops that had dropped to their knees and drawn their weapons in the middle of the street that the man they were pursuing went THAT way.

Seventy percent of New Orleanians say that America has forgotten about their struggle to recover from Katrina. This Sunday, President Obama's coming to pay attention to it for a day. Last time he spoke at Xavier here, a year after the storm, he said that "lessons can be just as easily unlearned as they are learned." Or, if the post-disaster, everything-is-fine-now headlines now coming out of the Gulf are any indication, they can also never be learned at all.

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Feds Investigate Transocean's Possible Ties to Burmese Drug Clan

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 12:33 PM PDT

The world's most infamous drilling firm, Transocean, has been slapped with a subpoena by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) over one of its projects in Burma. Basically, the drilling-platform operator best known for its exploding Deepwater Horizon rig is drilling in Burmese waters co-owned by a family of drug lords (including the "Godfather of Heroin") with whom it is verboten to do business under federal sanctions. The government wants to know if any sanctioned parties are actually listed on the drilling contract, and if Transocean was aware who it was dealing with.

I want to know something different: Who cares?

Though it sounds juicy, this story entirely misses the forest for the trees. This isn't the first time Transocean has worked in Burma: It also handled exploratory drilling for Daewoo's stake in the country's giant Shwe gas reserves; but since Daewoo's not blacklisted, that was okay. And Transocean isn't the only American company with interests in Burmese energy. Chevron helps operate a pipeline that earned the dictatorship more than $1 billion in 2008 and is the single largest source of income for a regime that propagates genocide and is allegedly trying to build nukes. But that's okay because Chevron lobbyists got some big fat loopholes in the US sanctions, guaranteeing the company doesn't have to divest. All of which doesn't matter much anyhow, because the plenty of other countries profiting off Burma's resources would be happy to grab up the American companies' stakes if they had to abandon them. Even the Congressional Research Service recently released a report (pdf) saying that more than a decade of US sanctions hasn't had any demonstrable impact on the junta's finances or power.

The Transocean probe will likely end up being as inconsequential as the sanctions the company might be violating. "We do not expect the liability," Transocean has stated in company filings, "if any, resulting from these inquiries to have a material adverse effect on our consolidated statement of financial position, results of operations or cash flows." In this case, the company's rosy PR assessment probably isn't just spin.

"The Goal Is Not to Let It Blow Up": A Tour of BP's Relief Rig

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 12:32 PM PDT

It's hard to believe BP lets visitors onto its relief-well rig: The guys onboard say that once, a Coast Guard guest took his safety glove off to swipe his hand through some toxic drilling mud; another time, a member of the media, when given access to the control bridge, randomly pressed a button and asked, "What's this do?"

It's even harder to believe BP would let me onto its rig, what with the months I've spent trying to get around the company's media blockade and hounding its flacks for access and information. But last weekend the company offered me a rare spot on a flight into the Gulf of Mexico on an S-92A Sikorsky helicopter. Our destination was the Development Driller II—or DDII, as the cool kids call it—one of the two rigs drilling relief wells near the now-capped Deepwater Horizon site. In addition to BP and Transocean reps, there were three other reporters (Times of London, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, a TV anchor from Alabama) on board. We all carried emergency medical forms granting authorization for blood transfusions, ready to be pulled from our pockets in the event that something horrible happened to us.

The DDIII, just visible across the choppy waves, is the other rig. It's poised to perform a "bottom kill" procedure as soon as the Coast Guard and BP give it the go-ahead, when pressure testing is complete. The DDII is its backup. (It was sent over from another of BP's Gulf projects, the Atlantis field, home to 16 producing wells and a platform that a lot of people are concerned is not safe to operate.)

Each rig costs $1 million a day to operate. Assuming everything goes well on the DDIII, the DDII will help permanently shut down the well. But for now, wellsite leader Mickey Frugé says, the word is "Hurry up and wait."

As such, it's pretty quiet aboard the DDII. Frugé said some of the crew was doing maintenance. Many of them, one of the guys told us, were hiding because we were there, and I'm not sure how much he was kidding. Wherever they were, they were no doubt engaged in wholesome fun: Per company regulations, no booze, no drugs, and no porn are allowed on the rig. Frugé listed Wii, foosball, Internet surfing, watching movies, and "walking around the helipad" as popular shipboard activities.

Everything on the guided tour seemed swell. We met many charming and confident personnel. We were told we had to keep our hard hats securely fastened to our shirt collars by a strap, lest the wind knock them off our heads; even so much as a styrofoam cup that gets dropped into the ocean, we were reminded several times, has to be reported to BP's environmental department. We were shown the lifeboats, two of them, which seat 88 people each, enough to fit exactly every single person onboard.

We met two guys in the Main Drill Cabin, or drill shack, a glass-fronted cage overlooking the hole where drill bits are lowered, or mud is pumped—or where an explosion would originate if something went wrong. Like plenty of the workers, the one of the two young guys manning the control chairs knew someone who'd died on the Deepwater Horizon. "Does it make you nervous that this is the worst place to be sitting if something blows up?" I asked his coworker.

"Well, the goal is not to let it blow up," he said, shaking his head like I was being silly.

He rattled off about 19 safeguards and contingency plans for possible problem scenarios, gesturing beyond the roof of the drill shack, where equipment hung high overhead, waving his hand in the direction of the blowout preventer control panel, a colorful computerized touch-screen graphic on the wall. "Nah, I never worry about it. There's nothing to worry about if you stay on top of your shit."

What the guys did seem a little concerned about was how this whole scene was being taken in by the visiting press. Every chat I had with a rig worker included him asking me at some point, sort of nervously, "So what do you think?" One of the captains asked me what I was going to write about. I told him I didn't have anything hard-hitting to say about the nice things I'd been shown. "So you're not going to bury us?" he asked, because it probably sucks to work hard for an industry vilified by large portions of your country.

The ROV control roomThe ROV control room

We asked several of the workers we encountered how they felt about the deepwater drilling moratorium. Are they worried about their jobs? Their futures? Not really, they said. There's no reason to think the ban will be indefinitely extended. "I've been at this company for 20 years, and my family's been in this company, and there's no point in worrying," Frugé told me before we left. "I'm not going to think about it unless it's actually declared."

And so, after a couple of pleasant and uneventful hours on the DDII, we said goodbye to the crew. Fortunately, the jokey warning Frugé had issued to us earlier had proved unnecessary. "If you see me runnin'," he'd said, smiling, when we'd first arrived, "y'all better be runnin' too." 

 

Special Report: Check out our in-depth investigation of BP's crimes in the Gulf, "BP's Deep Secrets."

BP Spill: Catastrophe, Sure. Disaster? Nah.

| Fri Aug. 13, 2010 9:09 AM PDT

Given the size and far-reaching devastation of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, you may have assumed that it qualifies as a federal disaster. Though you'd have been wrong, you wouldn't have been alone. "I am shocked that the Stafford Act has not been used for a declaration of federal disaster," says Mitchell Moss, disaster expert and professor of Urban Policy and Planning at New York University's Wagner School. "This is exactly why we have this policy tool—to provide federal aid in this kind of crisis." And that aid could be crucial to some coastal communities' survival.

The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act is the US law by which a federally declared disaster triggers the financial and logistical support of FEMA in any event that state and local governments aren't equipped to handle, from hurricanes to terrorist attacks to chemical spills. It's invoked by the president, by the request of an affected state's governor. Though the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida have all declared states of emergency, none has publicly requested the federal designation. (Eight days of calls to the office of Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal—whose state got most of the washed-up oil—and to the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness didn't turn up anyone who would comment on the issue.)

What difference would a federal disaster declaration make? FEMA could provide assistance to individuals, local organizations, and governments. For example, a FEMA spokeswoman explained to me, FEMA could step in and buy the food if a church that was running a food bank ran out of money to buy meals.

As it stands, "the only person responsible is BP, but BP doesn't have any idea what response and recovery means from a human perspective," says Tom Costanza, chair of the Greater New Orleans Disaster Recovery Partnership, a collaboration of 60 local organizations. BP is required to pay for certain environmental damages under a slew of federal laws—the Oil Pollution Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, and the Superfund statute. "But there's no funding for human recovery.

Since May, Catholic Charities of New Orleans has been delivering more than $100,000 worth of emergency grocery and bill assistance; last week, the organization announced that it's out of money. "Right now we have people standing in food lines," says Costanza. "If this were a federal disaster, we'd get disaster food stamps. We'd get disaster case management. Disaster mental health. Disaster unemployment." The Stafford Act would also activate an interagency task force that includes the American Red Cross, which so far, Costanza says, "didn't raise a dime. Neither did the Salvation Army."

Congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao (R-La.), whose district includes fishing communities from New Orleans, "has not pressed the case for the Gulf Coast to be declared a federal disaster because he feels strongly that BP, not taxpayers, should be held strictly accountable for the damage it has caused," according to a spokesman. But Costanza points out that government assistance doesn't have to preclude BP accountability: The Department of Labor sent $27 million in support to affected Gulf workers and will bill BP for the cost; the federal government has collected tens of millions from the company for its spill-response expenses.

Regardless of who ultimately foots the bill, NYU's Moss says the Stafford Act is the communities' best chance for long-term assistance at a time when initial relief is running out. Next week, Catholic Charities is cutting services to St. Bernard Parish, many of whose residents are struggling with the spill's effects. Many local fisheries still aren't open. BP is drawing down its cleanup operations, the only job many unemployed fishermen have been able to get. The Greater New Orleans Disaster Recovery Partnership has repeatedly asked BP for a $12 million grant to help continue emergency humanitarian services for the next several months, but has yet to get a response. "There's no legislation that tells them what to do," Costanza says.

The fate of the fishermen rendered unemployed by the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill suggests the devastation that can occur in the absence of federal aid. Victims were ultimately able to extract $1.1 billion in compensation from the company, but only after 19 years of litigation. "A lot of them are dead, or bankrupt, or divorced," says Brian O'Neill, the lawyer who tried the case. "The impact of the spill on both the natural environment and their abilities to make a living resulted in huge social disruption in the fishing communities. There were increased rates of alcoholism, domestic violence. Whatever social services existed were unable to handle it. Some communities didn't survive or are half the size they were in 1988. Whatever assistance BP is giving these people now, that will taper off drastically when this is off the front page."

BP Fires 10,000 Cleanup Workers

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 10:18 AM PDT

New BP CEO Bob Dudley wasn't kidding when he announced last week that it was time for the company to scale back oil-spill cleanup operations. In fact, by the time he'd said that, the responder force had been drawn down by about 25 percent.

On July 13, the Deepwater Horizon Joint Command was reporting 46,000 responders. On July 23, it was down to 30,000, and the numbers have hovered around the low 30s since. Included in this tally are some Coast Guard and National Guard staff, but BP and subcontractors comprise the vast majority. (I've been trying to get the exact breakdown from the Coast Guard for four days, but to no avail, and BP said it didn't have it on hand, though the Coast Guard has told me it just reports BP's numbers.) In Grand Isle, Louisiana, cleanup workers (none of whom can be named; you know this drill by now) say their coworkers were either told to go home for Tropical Storm Bonnie and then never called back or fired in a massive and sudden drug test.

"Friday, the day before Bonnie, they sent a bunch of people home until further notice, and a lot of people didn't get the further notice," one supervisor told me. "Then last week, they shut the whole [cleanup operation] down. It was 'Piss in a cup or throw your ID in the bucket.' This was a BP drug test, not a [subcontracting] company drug test. It's the first time BP tested us."

A BP spokesman told me that all its subcontractors are required to drug test their cleanup employees and allow BP to do random checks itself; it just happened to do one of those checks last week. But the cleanup workers believe the company's motivation was to fire a bunch of people fast. Maybe it's because they're conspiracy theorists. Or maybe it's because the subcontractors had long had openly lax substance-abuse standards. "Most of those people had never been drug tested before," the supervisor told me. "I worked for two different subcontractors that didn't test me." He also pointed out that the local bar's parking lot is nightly full of company cars and drunk guys who drive them; one cleanup worker I met had a picture in his phone of beer cans in the cupholders of cleanup vehicles in broad daylight. "They wanted to get rid of people, and drug testing was a good way to do it. I used to supervise 30 guys; now I've got 10."

The scaleback is set to continue. Supervisors say they're supposed to break down to just a "skeleton crew" by the end of September, so hopefully the media myth that there's no more oil anywhere comes true. "Everything still changes day to day," the supervisor told me. "You don't know when a bunch of oil's gonna pop up."

Prop 8 Ruling: What's Next for Same-Sex Marriage Rights?

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 1:00 AM PDT

It's kind of a banner week for queers, what with the overturning of Proposition 8. But what exactly is going to happen next? Meet Paul M. Smith, a lawyer who sits on the board of directors of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, an LGBT and HIV/AIDS rights organization, and the recipient of this year's Thurgood Marshall Award, a prestigious honor from the American Bar Association. I talked with him about how the Prop 8 decision could go horribly wrong, some other promising possibilities for landmark LGBT cases even if it does, and why you can thank him for the right to have gay sex in your own home.

MM: The Thurgood Marshall recognizes "long-term contributions by members of the legal profession to the advancements of civil rights and civil liberties and human rights in the United States." So you've obviously been working your ass off. Is there anything you think that particularly attracted this honor?

PS: I think it's fair to say that the Bar Association wanted to recognize somebody on behalf of the gay rights movement, because there hasn't been such a person yet winning this award. And I'm going to certainly accept it on behalf of a lot of people who have worked very hard in that area over the years. I've also done a fair amount of work on free speech over the Internet and more recently free speech for video-gamers, and voting rights.

MM: Tell me more about Lawrence vs. Texas, a Supreme Court case you argued and won. 

PS: There were these things called sodomy laws, under which even if you were in your private home with your partner you could be arrested and taken to jail for having sex. And these were not very often enforced directly, but more often were used as a basis for oppression of people indirectly. So they would take your children away if you got into a divorce situation and they found out that you were having gay sex. Or they'd fire you from a job if they found out you were breaking the law by having a partner. And then there was a case back in the '80s called Bowers vs. Hardwick, which upheld the constitutionality of sodomy laws, and it basically was used to justify all sorts of forms of discrimination against LGBT people.

There was a long effort made to chip away at sodomy laws in the state courts, and then finally the perfect case came along in Lawrence, which was two guys dragged off to jail in the middle of the night out of their home—out of one of their homes—and arrested and prosecuted. And so we worked with Lambda Legal to take it to the Supreme Court and fortunately the court did a good job. Those laws were gone, and there's now all this wonderful legal reasoning about how same-sex relationships are worthy of respect, and function the same way in people's lives as heterosexual marriages. And this in many ways was the foundation on which a lot of the progress on marriage issues has proceeded since.

MM: So no one has been prosecuted under sodomy laws since that case?

PS: Well, not for anything like private, consensual sodomy. I mean, if you get arrested in public that'd be one thing. But in terms of those sodomy laws, they've all been held unconstitutional across the board, across the country, because of the one case.

MM: There are a couple of things that I think are really interesting about Lambda. One is that there's this strategy of not just waging campaigns in actual, literal courtrooms but also in what they refer to as "the court of public opinion." And it seems like the latter could have hefty influence on the former.

PS: Right. These are two efforts that are very often closely coordinated together. So, for example, in Iowa, where we were in the process of winning the big marriage victory there, when the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled there's a state constitutional right in Iowa to same-sex marriage, there was a huge education effort to kind of make sure that the population of Iowa reacted in a relatively positive way and they didn't try to overturn it, as occurred in California.

MM: What's your reaction to Prop 8 being declared unconstitutional?

PS: It was expected that that's where the judge was going based on the questioning of the arguments. And I would say that he did a really fine job of writing up the reasoning and the factual underpinnings of his decision. It really is a very strong foundation for going up on appeal, and it's actually quite a good case to be citing in a lot of other cases. It really is about as good as it could be from the point of view of those who think Prop 8 should be held unconstitutional.

This case says that Proposition 8 violates the federal constitution. And the reason that's significant is that the other marriage cases, from Massachusetts to Iowa to Connecticut, Vermont, those were all cases brought against state constitutions, which meant that the states had the final say on what the law was and you couldn't take the case to the US Supreme Court. But this case is a federal case, which means they're saying everyone in the United States has a federal right to choose a same-sex spouse. And so the case could go to the US Supreme Court, and you might have national marriage rights across the board.

MM: Are you hopeful for that outcome?

PS: Well, I worry that it's a risky way to go, because there's obviously a big upside and big downside. But we're all working to help it be litigated as practically as possible.

The first issue's going to be whether or not it's stayed pending appeal, which is to say, will there be weddings going on in a week or whether the whole thing will be put on ice while the appeals go forward. If the judge decides not to stay it, there will be immediate requests for a stay from the court of appeals and ultimately, if necessary, the Supreme Court, so that's what's going to get fought out in the next few days. And then they'll file a notice of appeal, and that process takes its own sweet time, particularly in the 9th Circuit out here.

MM: When you say "sweet time..."

PS: It'll take at least a year. Could be two years. And then another issue is, if people are getting married, and it reverses, what happens to all those marriages? It's a little like what happened with Proposition 8, but they avoided those issues by interpreting it as not being retroactive. In this situation, it would be very messy. You'd have to figure out whether marriages that occur because of an erroneous decision are still in effect. That's complicated legally—and obviously difficult emotionally for people. I think there are fairly solid arguments for staying it, but it remains to be seen what will happen.

MM: And you're working on another case, in Massachusetts, that's challenging a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act that says the federal government won't recognize gay marriage even if a state does.

PS: I'm working with the lawyers in Boston on it, and it was just held unconstitutional by the Federal District Court up there. So that case could also go to the Supreme Court. We're gonna have an appeal start very soon. It's quite a different issue: This is about people who are already married having rights to Social Security and joint filing of tax returns and that sort of thing.

MM: And one of these cases going to or winning or losing in the Supreme Court doesn't preclude the other doing so.

PS: No, they don't. You could win in one and lose in the other. I could certainly imagine a world in which we could win in our case, and have the courts say, "If a state has decided to marry them, then the federal government has nothing to say about it—they should treat them as married," but not say, "You have to marry people who wanna marry," which is what the Prop 8 case is about. Or, if Prop 8 were to be confirmed, then our case would be kind of easy. A lot of good things are happening. But we'll just have to wait and see what happens on appeal.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Is BP Making Louisiana Charities Beg?

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 9:00 AM PDT

Yesterday, Catholic Charities New Orleans announced that it's out of money to provide relief to oil-spill victims.

For the last several months, the organization has been giving grocery vouchers and help with rent and utilities, as well as mental health counseling, to some 19,000 families of fishermen in Louisiana. BP gave Catholic Charities $1 million in May, but since the services cost up to $120,000 a week, the group says that money is gone. Catholic Charities heads a coalition of local organizations that have requested $12 million from BP to help them continue providing aid, but so far to no avail. "They just keep saying, 'We'll get back to you, we'll get back to you,'" says Margaret Dubuisson, Catholic Charities' director of communications. "We don't know when, which is a problem."

So what does this mean for people who've been counting on charity when their BP claims checks have been late or drastically reduced? "We might have to move to a model where only the neediest get help, and those that have need but aren't the most in need don't get help," Dubuisson says. "In fact, we're moving to that model in two of our centers starting next week."

So far, despite media hype suggesting that the crisis is over, Catholic Charities has been adding new people to its aid rosters every week. At just one center this past Wednesday, says Dubuisson, "200 people showed up for 125 [grocery] cards. We're still seeing more people than we can help." Dubuisson says the organization is dipping into meager reserves to keep delivering aid for now, but doesn't have an alternate source of funding lined up. (The St. Bernard Project, another group in the aid coalition that also offers counseling to traumatized Louisianans, is hoping to win a grant from Pepsi.)

"We're moving forward delivering the services," in the meantime, Dubuisson says. "But you can only do that for so long."

"All I Wanted Was to See Happy Faces"

| Thu Jul. 29, 2010 5:36 PM PDT

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."

Mainstream Media Helps BP Pretend There's No Oil

| Wed Jul. 28, 2010 11:07 AM PDT

"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 4:00 AM PDT

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.