June 01, 2010

This Weekend’s News: The Human Toll in the Gulf

The latest development over the weekend that BP’s “top kill” maneuver failed to plug the oil leak stripped away the modicum of hope I had that this crisis would be contained soon. It has been 43 days. While BP continues to try other methods, including capping the leak with a containment dome, the sobering front page stories from the New York Times and the Washington Post on Monday reported that it may not be until August before we see an improvement. According to the New York Times, “[Obama] administration officials acknowledged the possibility that tens of thousands of barrels of oil might continue pouring out until August, when two relief wells are scheduled to be completed.” The Washington Post added that “the company [BP] warned that the crude could continue flowing until August, compounding threats to coastal wetlands, fisheries and beaches.”

The President’s Special Assistant for Energy and Climate Change, Carol Browner, told CBS’s “Face The Nation” on Sunday that “This is probably the biggest environmental disaster we have ever faced in this country." And if you have been following the coverage of the environmental catastrophe that has been unleashed on the Gulf, you have no doubt.

But rather than lament the environmental nightmare that is likely to plague the Gulf coast for weeks and months (maybe even years) to come, I thought I would use this as an opportunity to instead highlight the tragic, human toll that the Gulf oil spill is having on the region – on the fishermen, the tourism industry – on people’s livelihoods.

One of the links we highlight in the Natural Security program is how natural resources affect national security – or, more to the point in this case, economic development and sustainable livelihoods (which are linked to national security). We often point to developing countries as examples of where this is most obvious. And it is true that developing countries – their economies and stability – may hinge more on natural resources than developed countries. But the Gulf oil spill reminds us that there are still many communities here in America that depend directly on the natural environment for their lives.  

On Monday, the Washington Post offered a glimpse of the human toll that the Gulf oil spill is having on the region that I think is worth quoting in full. Post reporter Theresa Vergas wrote: 

If the rig had never blown, if the oil had never spewed, if the roads of Grand Isle had never given way to an endless stream of military vehicles, Mary Jackson would have spent Memorial Day weekend fishing with her 3-year-old grandson, a boy who wakes up in the morning talking about the water. Penny and Frank Besson would have added up more than $800 in sales each night at their souvenir shop, instead of $26.23 one night and $48 another…

For many in this small Louisiana beach town, this Memorial Day weekend will be remembered less for what was seen, than for what was not…

The tourists, who on Memorial weekends past have pushed the town's population from about 1,500 to about 10,000, did not come. The hotels and rentals perched on stilts were filled with researchers, members of the military and journalists. The beach was void of swimsuit-clad families toting ice chests and umbrellas. Instead, it was filled with government workers in uniforms and cleanup crews in white jumpsuits and rubber boots. And the Speckled Trout Rodeo, usually an intense three-day fishing competition, was reduced to a single, fishless night.  

Meanwhile, Reuters reported on Sunday that “Florida has the most to lose.” Its 60 billion dollar tourism industry brings in 21 percent of state sales taxes and employs some 1 million Floridians. And even while the oil has not hit the panhandle state, many would-be tourists are avoiding its beaches (despite a massive ad campaign by the state to assure visitors that its beaches are oil-free).

Those working in the shrimping and fishing industries fear the most disruption to their ways of life. Louisiana’s shrimping season, which officially began yesterday, looks bleak, according to BBC. "My shrimping nets ain't catching shrimp now, they're catching oil," one fisherman told BBC on Sunday. On Saturday, the New York Times reported that NOAA extended the closed fishing area in the Gulf to “about 25 percent of federal waters, nearly 60,000 square miles.” 

The Times reported that many affected along the Louisiana coast are anxiously asking how BP will compensate for their losses:

Will the company also account for the upfront investment in oysters, where beds are seeded nearly two years before they are harvested, in a system more like farming than fishing? What if this shrimping season was shaping up to be the best since the early 1990s, as many fishermen contend?

Gulf coast residents have experienced more than their share of disasters in the last decade – and they have also demonstrated a tremendous amount of resilience. But the difference between the Gulf’s natural disasters and this man-made one can best be summed up by Time’s reporter Amy Harmon: “In a region where residents tick off the disasters they have survived (Betsy, Katrina, Rita, Gustav) the way people might tick off their favorite rock bands, this one offers no obvious way to rebuild.” (Emphasis added)

To boot, today marks the beginning of the Atlantic hurricane season, which will run through November. The New York Times reported yesterday that experts predict perhaps the most turbulent hurricane season in recent history. And, as the Times reported, “If a hurricane rolled over the spill, the winds and storm surges could disperse the oil over a wider area and push it far inland, damaging the fragile marshlands,” further afflicting the Gulf residents, perhaps even long after BP has plugged the oil leak.  

This Week’s Events

It’s a fairly light week in Washington as Congress is on its 10-day Memorial Day recess.

However, today at 3 PM, the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program will be hosting Paul Collier to discuss his new book, The Plundered Planet: Why We Must—and How We Can—Manage Nature for Global Prosperity.

On Wednesday, Resources for the Future will discuss economic perspectives on water quality policy from, 12:45-2PM.  

We’ll keep you updated as we hear about more events happening in Washington this week!