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.

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.

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.

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."

Some updates on the incident I reported on last week, in which an off-duty Louisiana sheriff's deputy working for BP's private security detail harassed an environmental activist who was neither on BP's property nor breaking any laws. (Watch the video at the end of this post.)

First, some gratifying news: The ACLU has put Louisiana law enforcement on notice. In a letter (PDF) released yesterday, Marjorie Esman, executive director of the group's Louisiana chapter, reminded the sheriffs of the coastal parishes that "members of the public have the right under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to film, record, photograph, and document anything they observe in a public place. No one—neither law enforcement nor a private corporation—has the legal right to interfere with public access to public places or the recording of activities that occur there. Nor may law enforcement officials cooperate with private companies in denying such access to the public."

Esman told me that the ACLU had discussed the matter due in large part to Mother Jones' reporting. She says it would consider filing a lawsuit if appropriate.

Louisiana police don't have any right to tell you you can't walk onto a public beach (even to, as Esman puts it, "roll around in sticky gunky tar that I'll never be able to get off—if I want to, that's my right"). However, they do have the right to mislead you about who they're really working for. In Louisiana, as in many places, it's legal for police officers to wear their uniforms regardless of whether they're acting in an official capacity or working for a private corporation. Which is why Andrew Wheelan, the environmentalist mentioned above, was unaware that the cop who pressured him to stop filming a BP building and later pulled him over so that a BP official could question him wasn't on duty at the time. The Terrebonne Parish Sheriff's Office told me that the deputy who pulled Wheelan over is just one of 40 in the parish who are working for BP on their own time. And the BP-police collusion goes beyond uniformed deputies moonlighting. In nearby Lafourche Parish, for example, the sheriff's office is filling 57 security positions a week for BP; the shifts are on the clock, and BP reimburses the sheriff's office for them.

There's been a lot of to-do about the federal government being officially in charge of all things oil-spill related, and Mother Jones ruffled some feathers by quoting a BP rep who said the company had a lot of sway over local sheriff's departments. But there you have it, plain as day: Down here, many cops do literally work for BP.

Seem like a conflict of interest, or even sort of scary? Perhaps. But, as Esman points out, it's perfectly legal. "BP doesn't have the right to just decide they're going to take over a public street," she says. "They do not have the authority to tell people they can't document what they see. But they do have the right to hire these deputies. There's nothing we can do about that."

Inside a cool, shaded old plantation house in St. Bernard, Louisiana, we're all breathing in our favorite color and blowing out gray smoke.

This relaxation exercise is brought to a roomful of women by the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit founded in 2006 to provide rebuilding services to Katrina-ravaged St. Bernard Parish as well as offer "psychological rebuilding" through its wellness and mental-health center. Since the oil spill started, the organization has been looking to vastly expand its services to meet the area's latest mental-health crisis: the unrelenting depression falling on families living and working on the Gulf Coast. Everyone here except the three clinic workers and me is a fisherman's wife.

Michelle, the clinical coordinator running this early-morning support group, asks the five wives who have come what the St. Bernard Project can do to help them.

"I don't know, because I don't know what's gonna happen."

"We need work. For the wives."

"Whatever happens needs child care. If wives are gonna start workin', someone has to take care of the kids. A lot of fishermen have kids."

"The biggest issue is that our situation is unknown," a woman named Tammy says.* She is tough and broad and has a soothing husk in her voice like phone sex or five packs of cigarettes. Tammy is dressed in white and is eight months pregnant. I hope never to get in a bar fight with her. "They haven't stopped the oil, huh? This is like a time bomb. You can't prepare for what you don't know. But I can tell you right now that we need toilet paper."

The claims checks BP is supposed to be sending are eight days late, which means everyone's out of cash for necessities. The day before, cars lined up and down the nearby highway for a 38,000-pound food giveaway. This morning, like every morning, there was a line outside a church center in New Orleans East, in a part of town where stray dogs scavenge trashy lots and industry makes the air smell like burning toast. There, and at four other locations around Southern Louisiana once a week, Catholic Charities is giving out $100 grocery vouchers. Though they don't open until nine, sometimes it takes being at the doors by four in the morning, when it's somehow already hot, to get one, because they always run out. But you can't buy toilet paper with the vouchers—food only.

I remember that about the $75 grocery vouchers the Red Cross gave us as Katrina evacuees in 2005. The checkout clerk at a grocery store in Ohio wouldn't let me buy vitamins, and boy was I mad about that. Had I not already cried myself out at the Gap looking at a shirt that I already owned but might be underwater back home, I would have pitched a sobby fit in Giant Eagle.

Everyone knows by now that BP is still blocking press access to oil-spill sites even though they're not supposed to anymore. I've been blathering about it for weeks, and it's been all of three days since four contractors wouldn't let me through the Pointe Aux Chenes marina outside Montegut, Louisiana. And though as of June 16 the federal government was saying helicopters could fly reporters as low as 1,500 feet around spill sites, on June 17 I was on a helicopter that was prohibited from flying below 3,000 feet (and whose pilot flipped silent birds at the "military guys" coming over the radio and hassling him about being in the area at all). But a Louisiana sheriff's deputy* pulling over a video camera-wielding private citizen because the head of BP security wanted to ask him some questions is a whole other level of alarming.

Last week, Drew Wheelan, the conservation coordinator for the American Birding Association, was filming himself across the street from the BP building/Deepwater Horizon response command in Houma, Louisiana. As he explained to me, he was standing in a field that did not belong to the oil company when a police officer approached him and asked him for ID and "strongly suggest[ed]" that he get lost since "BP doesn't want people filming":

Here's the key exchange:

Wheelan: "Am I violating any laws or anything like that?"

Officer: "Um...not particularly. BP doesn't want people filming."

Wheelan: "Well, I'm not on their property so BP doesn't have anything to say about what I do right now."

Officer: "Let me explain: BP doesn't want any filming. So all I can really do is strongly suggest that you not film anything right now. If that makes any sense."

Not really! Shortly thereafter, Wheelan got in his car and drove away but was soon pulled over.

It was the same cop, but this time he had company: Kenneth Thomas, whose badge, Wheelan told me, read "Chief BP Security." The cop stood by as Thomas interrogated Wheelan for 20 minutes, asking him who he worked with, who he answered to, what he was doing, why he was down here in Louisiana. He phoned Wheelan's information in to someone. Wheelan says Thomas confiscated his Audubon volunteer badge (he'd recently attended an official Audubon/BP bird-helper volunteer training) and then wouldn't give it back, which sounds like something only a bully in a bad movie would do. Eventually, Thomas let Wheelan go.

"Then two unmarked security cars followed me," Wheelan told me. "Maybe I'm paranoid, but I was specifically trying to figure out if they were following me, and every time I pulled over, they pulled over." This went on for 20 miles. Which does little to mitigate my own developing paranoia about reporting from what can feel like a corporate-police state.

The media liaison for the government-run Deepwater Horizon Response Joint Information Center told me BP would get back to me for comment on the incident. I'm still waiting.

* Correction/Update: This story originally stated that a Louisiana state police officer pulled Wheelan over, per Wheelan's recounting of the incident. My apologies to the state police for misreporting their involvement. After many calls made and messages left, I've finally confirmed that the cop in question was actually a sheriff's deputy for Terrebonne Parish. The deputy was off official duty at the time, and working in the private employ of BP. Though the deputy failed to include the traffic stop in his incident report, Major Malcolm Wolfe of the sheriff's office says the deputy's pulling someone over in his official vehicle while working for a private company is standard and acceptable practice, because Wheelan was acting suspicious and could have been a terrorist.

When my colleague Stephanie Mencimer notified me that some Tea Party types would be holding a rally in Houma, Louisiana, on Saturday to protest the new federal moratorium on deepwater oil drilling, I had some concerns. Namely that Tea Partiers getting involved in the issue could make it look like only crazy people are against the drilling ban down here, when in fact plenty of non-crazy people are mad that it could endanger as many as 20,000 jobs.

But the sentiments expressed at this particular rally were, as it turns out, about 300 percent crazier even than I had feared. Though a heavy storm was dumping sheets of rain outside, a couple hundred people packed the City Club of Houma.

Things started sensibly enough. We bowed our heads and prayed that God would lift the drilling ban; the president of Terrebonne Parish (below) declared that Obama's deepwater drilling moratorium was an "economic disaster of biblical proportions." Senator David Vitter's state director, David Doss, read a statement from the Louisiana Republican, who said he was unable to attend due to a canceled flight but "looks forward to working with you all and we must push forward to end this devastating moratorium on drilling."

But other than that, the rally was mostly two hours of yelling about how climate change is natural—"I've never seen CO2 in the air, have you ever seen CO2 in the air??"—how Barack Obama is simultaneously trying to enslave the American population and steal from it, and how welfare recipients should have to be regularly drug tested. One speaker gave the usual "We don't need the government" speech, followed immediately by, "If the government was doing its job making sure MMS did its job, we wouldn't be here. Why wasn't the government looking down their throats?" Another speaker pointed out that we're at two wars, one in Iran and one in Afghanistan, and that if we're not careful, the president of Israel, Ahmadinejad, is going to gain enough power to take over the world.

"Whose agenda is Obama pushing?" one speaker asked, and everyone yelled, "George Soros'!" Then we watched a video montage including footage of American soldiers, stills of Obama in Dark Knight Joker makeup, and the sun rising and setting on the Gulf of Mexico, set to Queen's "The Show Must Go On." Then we watched another video with clips of Rahm Emanuel and ACORN employees intercut with pictures of Chairman Mao, all over the superdramatic theme music from Requiem for a Dream.

Then it stopped raining, and everyone went outside to show off their crazy signs.














This guy told me the dying pelicans are the fault of Obama (Whose Government Is Too Big and Should Leave Corporations Alone) because the government didn't do enough to save the birds covered in BP's crude. He said the design was saved at the mall shop where he had it made, so anyone can buy one.

Afterwards, I left to check out how the cleanup efforts were going in the gorgeous marshes at nearby Pointe Aux Chenes. At the marina, four contractors stopped me to let me know that it didn't matter whether I was media or the Queen of Sheba; I was not allowed on to that piece of public property unless I was with BP.


You know the story: Boy calls girl, girl goes to pick up boy, boy and girl go sit on a beautiful beachside deck to enjoy the night breeze and listen to the waves crash as he tells her a bunch of terrible things that are going on at an oil-spill cleanup site. Yes, I had a date with Elmer, my mole inside BP's cleanup operation, and he painted a grim picture of the conditions for both workers and wildlife at Louisiana's Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge.

First, the workers: The men on Elmer's Island don't wear respirators since BP and OSHA have thrown precaution to the wind and deemed them unnecessary. But the only type of air-monitoring equipment Elmer's ever seen on the island are little multigas meters that are not up to the job: They're designed for indoor use, clog easily, and only measure limited types of pollutants. And despite the known dangers of dispersants and the toxic chemicals in crude (I can attest that contact with the stuff washing up on the beach can burn), workers aren't even wearing protective Tyvek suits anymore. Of course, there are medics on hand to treat anyone who gets hurt or sick. Unfortunately, any worker who asks for a medic's help is automatically drug tested, which, for some, can be a powerful incentive to not report injuries. (Not that keeping a cleanup job necessarily equals getting paid: Elmer says the contractors continue to lose workers' paychecks, a problem he told me about the last time we talked and that has since been confirmed by the local papers.)

Cleanup workers on these South Louisiana beaches aren't the only ones who could use more protections. What Elmer told me echoed the reports that BP isn't exactly doing everything in its power to keep track of the toll the spill is taking on wildlife. In nearby Port Fourchon, where he has also worked, there are markers to denote wildlife nesting areas, but they aren't clearly labeled and no one knows what they mean, so workers drive and trample over sensitive habitats. One day last week, Elmer and his coworkers came upon eight oiled pelicans, but though they called the official number to report their findings, no one had come to collect the birds by the time his shift ended many hours later. (A representative from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has yet to respond to my request for comment.) Workers on Elmer's have not been instructed to report dead animals for collection or autopsy. Elmer said he'd recently come upon a dead crab and, knowing no one was going to come to examine it, decided to slice it open himself. Black oil poured out.

I've seen some pathetic excuses for cleanup out here—were the workers on Elmer's at least making some progress? "They're not being effective out here," Elmer said. "Two days after your article, they bused in twice as many workers, so they're up to 120 guys on Elmer's now, but I can't see any considerable difference. They're only working five sites and it's eight miles of beach. No one seems concerned about cleaning it up. The contractors are getting their money; they don't care. They've got all these people out there, but they're not accomplishing anything."

Oh, wait. Not nothing: "They've brought in prostitutes." No one knows who the "they" that brought in the pack of hookers is, but the gals have definitely arrived, and you can buy time with one for $200. It only took someone a whole month even to figure out that it would be lucrative to sell sex to guys earning 44 hours of overtime a week and living in camps and converted 18-wheelers.

Photograph of Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge cleanup by US Coast Guard

The bird rehabilitation center in Fort Jackson, Louisiana, smells like Sea World: The stench of raw fish is overpowering. But that's pretty much where the similarities end. It's a hot, cramped warehouse; the audience consists of profusely sweating reporters; and the unhappy-looking captive animals are covered in oil. At first, the center was only getting a few pelicans a day, but now it gets about 40. As of noon today, 585 visibly oiled live birds have been collected on the Gulf Coast.

All these crates are full of oily pelicans:

Inside the crates, rescued pelicans huddle together, shaking like mad:

Before the pelicans are cleaned, they're given get at least 48 hours to rest up enough to survive the stress of being washed. During this "stabilization period," the birds are rehydrated, attended to by vets, and warmed up—oil destroys their temperature-regulating processes and they can freeze to death, even in the summer heat. They're also kept from preening themselves so they don't ingest more oil. When it's their turn to be cleaned, the birds move through something of an assembly line, getting pretreated, then scrubbed down, then rinsed:


Toothbrushes and soft sponges are used around the eyes and other sensitive areas. The rehab crew members try to maintain a firm but gentle grip on the birds as they struggle in the tubs. When the water gets dirty, the birds are moved to new tubs; often, 10 or 15 tubs are required. Sometimes a bird gets too stressed out or tired during and the cleaning has to be stopped. When the process is finally complete, then it's off to dry out and spend some time in the sun:

"These are the birds that are all better?" I asked a rehabilitation worker. "These are the birds that are nearly better," he said. "They won't be all better until they're released back into the wild." And then only maybe, since their survival rate at that point is estimated at 50 to 80 percent—and that's if they don't get slicked again. Currently, many cleaned pelicans are being released off the east coast of Florida, so their survival rate may go down if the oil works its way up the Eastern seaboard. 

You can watch a video with a sad but thorough explanation of the washing process below.