A year after the spill: Portraits from the Gulf
A year after BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster, uncertainty, confusion and disrupted lives are part of the legacy of America's largest offshore oil spill.
Los Angeles Times
The Gulf of Mexico is deep blue again. On the Alabama coast, children run on crowded beaches and splash in the surf. In fishing villages, shrimpers whitewash boat decks in preparation for another season.
But a year after BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster, uncertainty, confusion and disrupted lives also are part of the legacy of America's largest offshore oil spill.
The shock was immediate a year ago, when a bright, explosion flashed on the ink-dark expanse of the Gulf. Eleven men were missing and then presumed dead. Soon, oil streaked the surface, crept into marshes and stained beaches. Oil plumes wafted like giant ghosts in deep, isolated ocean ecosystems.
The grief was followed by months of sickening, slow-motion dread as the narrative of the spill unfolded on a vast stage, piling up statistics of a nearly unfathomable magnitude: 4.1 million barrels of oil gushed into the sea. Hundreds of miles of oiled shoreline spanned four states.
The response, slow and clumsy at first, grew to 47,000 personnel at its peak. They manned 9,700 cleanup vessels, laid hundreds of miles of boom and applied more than 1 million gallons of dispersant.
Now, like the ocean itself, the resilience of Gulf residents is being tested. For thousands, some help has arrived in the form of restitution checks from BP's $20 billion escrow fund, a program criticized as having Byzantine rules and too few payouts. As of April 11, about $3.79 billion had been paid to about 175,000 people and businesses.
The experiences of a few Gulf residents — a widow, an oysterman and a public-relations veteran — demonstrate that the story of the great spill of 2010 isn't over.
Clinging to her squirming child, Michelle Jones pulled open a safety-deposit box at a Chase bank branch in Baton Rouge, La., slid off her pebble of a diamond wedding ring — all Gordon could afford seven years ago — and dropped it in the metal container.
She wept for a moment and closed the lid.
"It is time to move on with my life," said Jones, 30. "I know this will be hard on Gordon's family, especially his mother."
It's been relentless month after relentless month since her husband, Gordon Jones, died with 10 other rig workers in the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon. Almost a year later, Michelle Jones yearns for quiet routine: a part-time job, going to the gym, dinner out with friends, and maybe a date.
"I miss the feelings when someone tells you, 'I love you' and 'You are beautiful,' " she said.
Gordon was working in a below-deck room where drilling materials were handled when the rig blew.
Michelle, in the ninth month of her second pregnancy, got an early-morning call April 21 from a representative of Gordon's rig-services company, M-I SWACO.
"He said there had been an explosion and fire on Gordon's rig," she recalled.
She last spoke to her husband about 9:30 p.m. April 20, a few minutes before the explosion and three days before their sixth wedding anniversary.
"His last words were, 'I love you,' " she said.
The spectacle surrounding the disaster — the nighttime blast, the technicians who testified that key safety systems were bypassed, scores of headlines, interview requests by reporters and lawyers, cheery BP advertisements promising "to make it right," and that menacing, round-the-clock live video of BP's renegade well — pummeled Michelle for months.
In early May, she filed a lawsuit in federal court against the rig's owner, Transocean, and its operator, BP, as well as Halliburton Energy Services and numerous insurance companies. The suit accuses the companies of negligence, violating government regulations and failing to take appropriate safety precautions.
On May 14, the same day a letter arrived from the Coast Guard officially declaring that Gordon was "presumed dead," Michelle went into labor and drove herself to the hospital. She had packed a framed portrait of Gordon, son Stafford and herself dressed in their Sunday best, and focused on Gordon's image as she gave birth to Maxwell Gordon Jones.
"When I brought Max home from the hospital two days later, '60 Minutes' aired a program about what went wrong with the well's blowout preventer," she recalled. "It was so disturbing I couldn't sleep. I caught myself wondering if he had somehow escaped, and I wondered, 'We had a happy marriage, didn't we?' "
Michelle and her two boys were among the grieving families who met with President Obama on June 10. As their bus rumbled through the White House gates, Michelle noticed a family of four — a young man, his wife and two boys — crossing a nearby street.
"I'll never forget that sight; it drove home why I was there," she said. "I'm a widow with two young children."
Saturday, June 26, would have been Gordon's 29th birthday. As relatives sang happy birthday in a private room of a Baton Rouge restaurant, Michelle said she was "imagining what it might have been like with Gordon there sitting next to me. Just silly things like holding his hand, kissing him on the cheek, kicking him under the table for telling an inappropriate joke."
Michelle and her boys attended a July 4 family gathering along the Mississippi River. A month later, for the first time, "I began thinking, 'I can live through this,' " she said. "But it also hurt to think that the company that had publicly accepted blame for the incident had never once called me to say, 'I'm sorry.' "
In September, about the time the wellhead was plugged, Michelle, who has been living on Gordon's life-insurance policy and paychecks mailed to her by his former employer, began working two days a week at an antique store near home.
The family delayed creating a memorial for Gordon. Until recently, Michelle said she feared such a gathering would "put a sense of finality on the whole thing that I wasn't quite ready for yet. Everyone deals with things like this at their own pace."
Gordon's mother, however, ordered a grave marker in his honor, which she placed this month on a family burial site at a Baton Rouge cemetery.
As the chief marketing guru for Alabama's beach towns, Mike Foster's biggest prespill concern was how to tamp down the region's downscale Redneck Riviera nickname, and persuade his most desired patrons — Southern moms ages 35 to 54, with six-figure household incomes — to pack up the SUV and visit.
Foster, a veteran public-relations man, spent more than a decade notching up successes.
Then came the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Foster knew it was trouble long before the first tar ball fouled the sugar-white shore.
The beaches took their share of oil. But even on days all was clear, Foster said, TV news kept showing what he calls "that duck": footage of a seabird coated in oil. All the pictures of white sand in the world couldn't undo the stain of that bird.
His strategy last summer was to tell the truth. Every day, the website for the tourism bureau reported the facts, however unpleasant. "If there's oil on the beach, we'll tell them that," Foster, 62, said. "But if the beaches are clean, we'll tell them that, too."
His tourism office burned through $15 million in BP money, paying for TV ads and sponsoring a nationally televised Jimmy Buffett concert. Yet the tourism business declined by nearly half. Alabama's summer-beach-rental revenue went from $133 million in 2009 to $70 million in the post-spill summer of 2010, according to state statistics.
This makes summer 2011 particularly crucial for an area almost entirely dependent on visitors. There are lingering reasons for concern. For some, that duck is still a difficult image to wipe out. The beaches, which appear pristine at first glance, are patrolled by cleanup crews that spend mornings plopping tar balls into little nets.
Some independent scientists, such as Wilma Subra, a chemist studying the spill's effects on behalf of a Louisiana environmental group, warn that lingering oil in the water and sand could cause respiratory and skin problems for visitors. Subra says she wouldn't swim in the stuff.
Foster remains optimistic. State officials have approved the water for swimming, and BP just completed a thorough "deep cleaning" of the beaches. Most important, Foster said, many families would find it difficult to stay away from their favorite vacation spot.
There is some evidence he may be right. City of Gulf Shores spokesman Grant Brown said tax revenue was up nearly 3 percent in the first two weeks of spring-break season compared with 2010.
BP has given Alabama $16 million more for a continued marketing push, and Foster is waiting to find out how much of that he will be getting. In the meantime, this season's magazine and Web ads beckon regulars to return — without mentioning oil. If you mention oil, Foster said, they'll only think about oil.
"We're not lying about the sugar-white beaches," he said. "We believe the memory of potential visitors is short."
On a balmy March afternoon, shrimper and oysterman Kevin Brannon walked out of the offices of the Alabama Oyster Farmers Association in a scruffy shopping mall clutching paperwork and hanging on to a hope that at least this would be a sure thing.
The papers, once signed, would allow him to take part in a state program hiring fishermen to move bacteria-contaminated oysters — an issue unrelated to the BP oil spill — to cleaner waters. The pay was $8 a sack, a tiny bone the government was throwing the oystermen.
Like many watermen along the Gulf Coast, Brannon has seen his last year dominated by unsettling questions about the health of the fisheries and the restitution payments promised by BP.
Alabama's public oyster beds remain closed. Jason Herrmann, a state biologist, says that's because of enduring damage from hurricanes and drought. But Gordon Wright, president of the oyster farmers group, is among those who suspect the dispersants used to fight the oil spill killed many young oysters.
Brannon, like many others, is frustrated by the BP-funded claims process. Between the claims bureaucracy and restricted waters, it's been hard for him to say where his money will come from. Sometimes it hasn't come at all.
"Really lost, kinda, is how you'd have to feel," said Brannon, 42.
He said there were more unknowns ahead. In May, he hopes to be out on the Papa Hunky, his brother's 51-foot shrimp boat, hauling in nets fat with squiggling brown shrimp.
Fishermen and biologists agree the health of the "brownie" population will not be known until men like Brannon gas up their boats and head out.
It's hard to feel optimistic. "I believe if the oil's out there it's going to kill the babies," Brannon said.
He said he received two $5,000 checks from BP early on, but more substantial restitution hadn't worked out.
His first application for an emergency payment from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, the group administering the $20 billion BP trust fund, was turned down. He was told he lacked documentation, even though he produced tax forms, oyster licenses and shrimp tickets. He's not sure what he did wrong.
His girlfriend worked as a crab picker before the spill, but low demand for Gulf crabs killed that job. With five children to feed, the couple have burned through the savings they built, even after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his shrimp boat.
They await a ruling from the claims facility on what Brannon hopes will be a payout in the low six figures. It would cover an anticipated four years of losses from the closed oyster beds.
His old life was defined by the rhythms of nature. These days it seems stuck in politics.
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange accused claims administrator Kenneth Feinberg of "stalling the large majority of claims" in an attempt to force meager settlements.
Feinberg defended his work, noting that nearly 29,000 Alabama residents had received more than $688 million in payments.
From Brannon's vantage, it seems more about luck and chance.
"It was like eenie, meenie, miney, moe," he said. "And if you was moe, you didn't get nothin'."