Louisiana is one of those places that, for me at any rate, reaches deep into the depths of my soul. There is something at once bewitching and inviting about it that defies reason. It is one of the poorest states in the country, and I can attest from my recent, un-air conditioned drive through it that its summer weather is nearly the most brutal to be found anywhere. Common sense should dictate that it’s best to live life elsewhere, where the air isn’t so heavy and the mosquitos not so thick. But beneath the lush green surface of this watery wonderland is an alluring culture that beckons one to join its laissez-faire good times and laid back lifestyle.
Having tired of driving on the interstate, I opted instead to make a bee-line for the Gulf Coast, traveling along Highway 82. From Holly Beach, a flat, quiet collection of colorful vacation homes on a pleasant beach at the state’s west end, the road made a ferry crossing over a bayou before cutting back inland. Winding through gnarled oaks dripping with Spanish moss, most of the houses in the area were elevated on pilings — Hurricane storm surge protection — and many were of the French Colonial variety, with low, wide-brimmed roofs shading long windows and comfortable-looking porches. I pictured myself sitting on one, beneath a slowly-spnning ceiling fan, enjoying a cold beverage amidst the constant, musical hum of insects.
But I was consigned to hear only the din of an unmuffled Subaru boxer engine (the muffler rusted and fell off long ago, giving the car a rally car rumble, something I think is sporty, but that almost everyone else thinks sounds treif), and did the best I could to enjoy the scenery as I slowly but surely, melted into my seat.
Along the way, I saw the names of a few native Louisianans I know pop up here and there. A Stelly’s grocery in the middle of nowhere. A Toups general store next to a used tire shop (irony of ironies for me, personally). Babineaux for Parish supervisor, and so on. Eventually, I made my way out to Highway 90, stopping briefly in Morgan City, a picturesque little town on the Atchafalaya River where I’d spent a couple of months some years ago doing survey work in support of a channel maintenance project on the river for Weeks Marine, Inc. The little park in the center of town is…is… well, “darling” I think would be the best way to describe it. I’ve never seen too many people there, but it must have been a happening place at some point, if the bandstand, monumental statues, and red, white and blue-sashed buildings surrounding the park are any indication. I’m guessing that Morgan City reached its apogee more than half a century ago, and now seems consigned to post small-town America obscurity.
It’s interesting to note that while Morgan City and other towns in the area are protected by ring levees and other flood control devices, they are now so far below the water level of the river to be, as described by John McPhee in his book The Control of Nature, much like tumbler glasses set in a pan of water. As it turns out, those flood control devices have made it impossible for the natural sedimentation that occurs in alluvial flood plains such as this one to go about their natural business, so the elevation of the ground upon which Morgan City and like municipalities is built is actually sinking, as it is in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Also, if the Mississippi River had its way, it would forgo passing through Baton Rouge and New Orleans altogether, opting instead for the much easier route along the Atchafalaya Basin. But the Army Corps of Engineers, in all its wisdom, has seen fit to constrain the river to its present course over the past 50 years, in order to maintain the economic viability of one of America’s poorest urban centers — New Orleans. I’m not saying that’s wrong — I’m just saying.
The real reason I’d decided to drive across the South during the very worst time to drive across the South, though, was to snap some photos of the oil spill cleanup for Miller-McCune Magazine. What better place to observe such action, I reasoned, than Grand Isle, Louisiana, which has been the focus of so much media attention over the past several months. Even if there wasn’t much going on — there wasn’t — the drive down was rife with houseboats, drawbridges, friendly Cajun rednecks, and all of the other fine things that distinguish Louisiana so markedly from its neighboring states.
By the time I had waded through two lane road traffic and reached Grand Isle, most of the cleanup workers were changing shifts. There were people from everywhere: locals, guys from Houston, even workers from as far away as California had been enlisted in the task of removing the brown and black sludgy remnants of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe from the beaches there.
“Ay, ay, you come all the way from Cali?” a worker sitting in a white Caddy shouted as I stepped from the surfboard-laden Subie. I anwered in the affirmative and asked him where he and his tatooed friends were from. “Yo, we from H-town, boyeeee! I like yo car, magn!” he said as he and his friends drove off laughing.
Another worker I spoke with was employed by a tank cleaning company in Houma, but he had been diverted from his usual duties for the past couple of months to man a barge for 12 hours each day, scouring the water surface for oil slicks and helping suck the oil up with his company’s special equipment. He was on his way home, however, after BP decided it no longer needed his services. Everyone I talked to said that after Tropical Storm Bonnie hit the coast last week, there wasn’t much oil left to be seen. Apparently, the chemical dispersants and wind did more than thousands of cleanup workers and military personnel could accomplish.
However, I’m a little doubtful that chemical dispersants and bad weather did anything other than transfer the problem somewhere that won’t be seen until later, and then only subtly. But it seems to have been enough to placate most people. BP is stoked — they appear to be, for the time being, off the hot seat, and hopefully, have finally stopped the leak. When I stopped by their Houma, Louisiana training center on my way to Grand Isle, the Terrebonne Parish Sherrif’s Deputy guarding the front entrance would neither comment nor allow me to ask the State Police folks in a nearby command trailer if there had been any security issues at the site, but it seemed pretty quiet, all in all.
Security on Grand Isle was pretty mellow, although the Sheriff’s deputies were pretty strict on limiting beach access.
“The answer to your question is no,” one of them drawled as I approached his cruiser, camera in hand. “The military has millions of dollars worth of equipment down on the beach, and I don’t have the authority to let anyone down there.”
The beach is unequivocally closed for everyone, save people working on the cleanup efforts. Grand Isle, a vacation destination not unlike the Coastal Carolina beaches I frequented as a child, normally boasts a robust tourist population at this time of year. But now, aside from work crews, law enforcement officers, and National Guardsmen, the place is dead. So whether or not the oil spill has caused any lasting physical damage, it has left its mark economically temporarily lay moribund the spirit of a normally vibrant summer destination.