Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I can't decide if Edie is blessed or cursed with her insatiable curiosity concerning disasters. Her need to know can get her following her nose into things big and small. The way she gets things right is by initially getting them wrong - the pronouncements she makes compel us, her closest friends, to jump in and correct as much as we can and get her on the right track before her erroneous assumptions lead her into trainwreck territory. It sounds worse than it is, really...

...but there have been days when she's yanked me right into places where I haven't wanted to go, but, it turns out, I've needed to be there. One of those days was my first day back in New Orleans in 2006...and the most recent one was yesterday.

Why did I go to Venice? Edie wanted to volunteer to help clean the oiled birds at the facility set up near Fort Jackson just outside Buras. We didn't need to go down there just for that; all we needed to do in that case was to sign up over here. Neither one of us has experience trying to get crude oil off waterfowl, but we could probably pass supplies to those who do have the experience and the certification. Yeah, fine, I was curious, too...and we both had the impulse to do something, even if it amounted to driving to the mouth of the Mississippi River to have a look-see. So off we went, taking in Garland Robinette and Spud McConnell on the radio the whole way down.

We reached a point past Belle Chasse when the river was constantly on our left and the structures became more temporary. Nearly five years ago, the eye of a downgraded-to-category-3-at-landfall storm named Katrina had passed directly over Buras, and the fierce winds closest to the hurricane's center had turned the structures in Plaquemines Parish into tangled masses that were indistinguishable from the houses, businesses, marinas, and boats that they had once been, and what hadn't been knocked down had been flooded out. Plaquemines' physical recovery has largely consisted of modular homes that originally traversed the country on the backs of trucks to rest on blocks at Port Sulphur, or Empire, or Boothville, or nearly-obliterated Buras. Some houses are rebuilt on slabs as though nothing ever happened to change the homeowners' minds to rebuild any other way, and some structures are jacked up high in the sky on stilts, but this is no longer a country of homes older than a few short years.

Optimism, or perhaps sheer doggedness in the face of those who would tell Plaquemines residents to leave the only home many of then had ever known, showed its face in the signs proclaiming that one roadside site or another was to be the future home of a health care facility, an elementary school, a secondary school, a seafood restaurant. The Conoco Phillips refinery captured the railroad tracks that had been traveling alongside the highway we were on and pulled them away from the road halfway through our trip - that facility looked quite new as well. Much was reinvested in this, the gateway for the harvesting of edible Louisiana sealife and offshore oil - but not too much. The people who live in the parish aren't wealthy by any means; their lives are still susceptible to the next big storm, and could well be blown away again. Little did they know that their next challenge wouldn't come from 75+ mph winds, but from a black death silently climbing its way up from deep deep under the nearby Gulf.

I find now, as I look through all the pictures I hastily took when we missed the turnoff for Fort Jackson and decided to keep going to Venice, that my quick impressions, the incompleteness of my feeble attempts to try to understand what was on the ground and in the water from internal-combustion-fueled wheels are extremely piddly in the face of one fact: that the Adams Grocery in Venice is no longer crawling with fishermen and women talking of where they've been on the water or where they'll be next in their boat. Working people's towns like those we passed through yesterday are supposed to be hopping some, even in legendarily laid-back Louisiana....aren't they?

I want to hope that we might have come to town at the wrong time, or we missed a place...which we did, but we went back and took that turnoff to Fort Jackson. The early-nineteenth century fort was itself closed, damaged by Katrina and its storm surge with no available funding for the fort's repairs in its foreseeable future, but, at the other end of the site, the warehouse containing the bird cleaning facility was surrounded by cars with license plates from many states on their bumpers, some refrigerated semi trailers for the dead birds that couldn't be saved, and a fence with a checkpoint booth from which a nice security officer emerged and gave us information about volunteering to help clean. Midway between the closed fort and the guarded warehouse was a nearly empty field in which some people labored to erect another chain-link fence and to prepare the field for even more emergency facilities and refrigerated trailers. Across the highway from the Fort Jackson turnoff, one could see and hear the helicopters that were constantly picking up sandbags to haul towards the sand berms being constructed in an attempt by the state's governor to do something, anything, to try to prevent the oil-filled tides from depositing themselves into the wetlands. It reminded Edie of the choppers that tried to stick sandbags in the New Orleans levee breaches nearly five years ago.

Looking at Plaquemines Parish on a map gives one the impression that it is a region out on a tenuous limb of a piece of land. It's been flooded out many a time, either intentionally or unintentionally, but its people kept on coming back. As to whether or not things have gone much too far this time for its residents...only time will tell.

3 comments:

judyb said...

Great post! Thank you.

monte merrick said...

Good writing. Very evocative. I was in Empire (and Nairn)right after Katrina - yes it was a mess -I was looking for oiled wildlife at oil facilities there... i've never seen so much broken stuff in one place - and barely a soul around...
good luck with the current disaster - i feel for the whole region...

VOGTHORSTAR said...

I have always felt,
as a Louisiana native,
that everyone should,
at some point see the fragile and fierce beauty of Plaquemines-"the end of the earth" and the beginning of the Gulf and so much life in the water...
before they die..
But now it's even more important to see it before it is possibly destroyed by this poison goop.. Beauitful post- Thank you for your blog!