It was the first week of the disaster when I got to the message on my voice mail. His name was Fred, and he was calling from Pointe a la Hache, the hardscrabble fishing community where the road ends on the east side of the river about 60 miles south of New Orleans. He had awakened that day to read in the newspaper that his marsh had been closed to fishing because a huge tide of oil was coming its way. His voice was heavy with grief.
“Mr. Marshall, I just read the paper, and I needed to talk to someone, ” he said, “so I called you because your number was at the end of the story.
“I feel like they just killed my best friend, and there’s nothing I can do about it. If I lose this marsh, I lose my fishing, maybe my duck hunting, too. That means I could lose everything I care about.
“They talkin’ about making BP pay. What good will that do me? It won’t bring back my best friend. How’d they let this happen?”
Then he hung up without leaving a number.
I thought I knew how Fred felt until five weeks later when I got a call from one of our photojournalists who had just flown the coast again.
“Bob, it’s coming through Coupa Bel and Barataria Pass, just flooding into Barataria Bay, the worst I’ve seen since this started,” he told. “Sorry.”
I felt a sudden rush of emotions; anger mixed with sadness wrapped in hopelessness. And I thought of Fred.
The Barataria estuary has been one of my best friends for most of the last 40 years. A vast wetlands complex of salt and mangrove marshes with bayous, large bays and small, and thousands of shallow ponds, it has been my office but also my refuge. Truth is, it’s been dying for decades, thanks largely to the impacts of oil and gas development onshore and off, its marshes being swallowed by open water at the rate of 25 to 35 square miles per year due to canal dredging and levees. But what has been left is still one of the nation’s most amazing ecosystems.
It’s a place producing huge volumes of specks, reds, flounder, drum, shrimp, oysters and crabs; a place where vast swarms of teal spend the winter along with enough gadwall and widgeon to make a sunrise exciting; a place when pelicans returned from the dead, where bald eagles fish, neo-tropical songbirds rest on their long trans-continental journeys, where bottlenosed dolphins come to play around our kayaks by the dozen.
It is a place that keeps me sane when the world on the dry side of the levees seems to be spinning out of control.
For the first four weeks of the oil disaster I was a resident of that famed land called Denial. When BP’s mistake was fouling other stretches of the coast, I keep telling my friend, “We’ll keep dodging bullets.”
Now the bullet was hitting the bone. And the soul.
Hundreds of commercial fishers and guides were out of business, tens of thousands of sportsmen were locked out, and the ecosystem we’re supposed to protect and pass on to the next generation is being mugged.
Like Fred, I don’t want a check from BP. I want my nation to tell me this will never happen again, that I won’t ever lose another friend to hubris and greed on the part of industry, and by neglect and malfeasance on the part of the agencies sworn to protect them.