Interest Turns Away, But Gulf Coast Still Suffers

Six months ago, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew up and sank in the Gulf of Mexico. The initial explosion grabbed the nation's attention, but few imagined what was to come. As the oil spread, writer Terry Tempest Williams felt compelled to bear witness to the devastation and share the stories of those most affected.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Six months ago, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew up and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, few realized just how bad things would get. But over the days, weeks and months that followed, millions of barrels of oil gushed into the ocean, along with hundreds of tons of dispersants.

This summer, writer and activist, Terry Tempest Williams travelled to the Gulf Coast to bear witness. She joins us in a moment to share the stories of some of the people that she met. And we want to hear from those of you who lived along the Gulf Coast six months on. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Terry Tempest Williams' piece about her journey appears in the November/December issue of Orion Magazine. And she joins us from the studios of member station, KUER in Salt Lake City. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS (Writer, Activist): Thank you, Neal. Your voice calms me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Oh, thank you for that. You met folks with deep roots on the Gulf Coast. I wanted to ask you about a few of them. I was wondering if you could tell us about Mark and Kevin and I'm probably going to mispronounce the name Curole.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Curole, uh-huh.

CONAN: And they're from St. Charles Parish.

Ms. WILLIAMS: They are. Powerful people. Margaret would tell you that she has lived in the bayou for 50 years. She was born there. She was adopted. She told me that her adopted parents actually lived on the BP compound in Saudi Arabia. They bought her, so to speak, in Cajun country from her mother for $500 and two dresses. She's a fierce, feisty, eloquent spokeswoman for the shrimping industry, and actually works for fisheries, NGO, in cooperation with the United Nations. Her husband, Kevin, has been a shrimper all of his life. And just in the last few years, he quit because of his anger, because of his despondency and now works in the oil fields.

CONAN: And now works in the oil fields. Anger and despondency because the price of shrimp from the Gulf was undercut by foreign imports.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Exactly. So this has been a beleaguered industry for a long time. This really is a death blow to the shrimpers. What I loved about Margaret is her wit, her wisdom, her power, that something had to be done and how do you get people's attention. She was an artist, created a text message that they sent out to BP executives, members of Congress, the governor, everyone in power that they could think of. They spelled out with bodies on the beach three messages: the first, never again; the second, paradise lost; and the third, WTF. And is in that spirit that Margaret spoke of the degradation of the Gulf.

She said to me, Neal, Terry, don't believe 75 percent of what you're saying. And when I asked her what are the stories that aren't being told. She said, two: one, the amount of oil that has been released; and two, the amount of dispersants that are being sprayed. And then she told of carpet bombing taking place in the bayous as people were sitting on their porches eating at night. BP yeah?

CONAN: Carpet bombing of dispersants?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Exactly, in Coast Guard planes. You know, this is not a pundit talking. This is not an opinion or position. This is a man and a woman who've lived their all their lives telling the truth, telling the stories that we so often don't get to hear.

CONAN: You quote her as saying: For us Cajun folk, fishing isn't a business. It's a way of life. Its something beautiful. We may be poor, but we never went hungry. We had shrimp, crabs, and coon oysters. We had a free and abundant food supply. In these parts, you either fish or you work in the oil fields. So if you take away the oil job, with the moratorium on deep-well drilling and the fishing is gone, were down to nothing.

Ms. WILLIAMS: You know, I changed because, you know, I have been opposed to deep-well-water drilling. And when you hear the plight of the people, you realize that there has to be a transition. And, you know, they can't take hits on both sides. And I felt enormous empathy, as I listened to their story and this story was very common all along southern Louisiana.

CONAN: Yet - well, we're talking with Terry Tempest Williams. Her piece, "The Gulf Between Us," is in the November/December issue of Orion magazine. And if you'd like to join the conversation, if you lived along the Gulf Coast, if you do now, what's it like six months on? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

You say you grew sympathy for those who work on - in the oil industry, it's important to their way of life. It's interesting also, you talked with a scientist, who said we need to change so much about the way that we organize our lives and our priorities, for he was talking specifically about reorganizing the Mississippi River, to return it to its more natural state. But he was also talking about, well, challenging our whole relationship with oil.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Absolutely. It's Dr. Paul Kemp, one of the vice presidents of the Audubon Society. And he basically said America's Gulf Coast is in cardiac arrest and the system is breaking down, not from one thing but everything. And it's true when they said, you know, what you're really asking for - when he was talking about this Marshall Plan, you know, scaled over the entire Mississippi River system restoration, restoration of the Mississippi Delta, I said, you're basically talking about calling for a complete restructuring of Western civilization. And he didn't flinch. I mean, these are the stories that are so moving to me.

And I remember watching on Comfort Island, this island that was, you know, it looks like someone has taken a splattering of oil, brown not black, that looked like drops of blood. It looked like the scene of a crime. There was a reporter from CBS Evening News, and he kept saying to Dr. Kemp, wouldn't you agree this story isn't as bad as we thought it would be? Wouldn't you agree that this is not the environmental catastrophe that everyone said it would become? And he said, no, I do not agree. And it's going to be years before we know what the outcome of this is going to be.

CONAN: Tell us about Lori DeAngelis, the captain of the Dolphin Queen.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Lori DeAngelis, passionate. She's known in the Mobile Bay area of Alabama as the Dolphin Queen, passionate about her dolphins, emotional about her dolphins, was diagnosed with chemically induced pneumonia. She was bleeding from her nose and internal bleeding, very, very sick.

Her husband, Mike DeAngelis, was one of what they called Voo-da-dudes(ph) vehicle - vessel of opportunity, where you register your boat with BP. They talked about how it was hush money. He was getting $1,200 a day with $200 for extra crew members. They were tortured and in turmoil, they needed the money. He wanted to do good. But what he found is that BP never sent them out for five days. That they just - and when he finally did go out, they just circled around. There was a joke in the Gulf, saying, we're on BP time, which means you're being paid to do nothing. This was a common, common story.

And, you know, they basically said our boat is held hostage under BP. And now, Lori can't work. She can't check on her dolphins. I spoke to her yesterday, two dolphins. Normally, there's 40 that she's very familiar with. She said they can't establish eye contact. You know, you hear that there's two dolphins in today's USA Today - two dolphins that were reported dead. You know, I think that's laughable. So much of the sentiment of the people that I spoke with is, what do we believe? Who do we believe? And what I saw to be true, were the people on the ground who were doing the real ground truth(ph) thing(ph), where it was their survival at stake.

CONAN: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Terry Tempest Williams is with us. Let's go to Musheer(ph), Musheer is with us from Baton Rouge in Louisiana.

MUSHEER (Caller): Hi, good evening.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

MUSHEER: I'm sure the NAACP (unintelligible) on economic development here in Louisiana. I can tell you the dollars have not been flowing either from BP, from the federal government or the state government to these communities, the affected communities. Well, we've had just - I mean, really, really, this is more devastation on the back of Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike. And there really doesn't to be any sense of urgency from anybody in regards to this. And it's sort of out of, you know, out of mind than that's that. So I'm appreciative that you're doing this show.

I do care about the animals and et cetera, et cetera, and the ecosystem. But (Unintelligible) also care very, very much about the people who have been dislocated, displaced again, don't have any health care, we have - we rank number 49 in everything, health care, education, all of the different indicators of quality of life and survivability. And I think it's about time there's little bit of focus on our part of the world and our particularly challenged community.

CONAN: It's interesting you say that. Terry Tempest Williams, you were talking to some Cajuns who say, we don't feel like Americans anymore.

MUSHEER: No.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Becky Duet.

MUSHEER: And I agree with those people. But that's exactly they did. I mean, this is not a question of just black folks. This is a question of Louisianans, grassroots people of all races are in the same boat. And it's just - it's atrocious.

CONAN: Terry.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Becky Duet made that comment. A beautiful woman, Cajun woman, who lived in Galliano, runs Jordan's Deli, named after her son. She was saying, you know, as Cajuns, we've always felt that we were wealthy. If we had bread, beans and rice and a chicken neck to throw into the bayou, we would come up with the bounty of the waters.

Recently, she sent me a letter that just said, we're starving, there are no fish here, and whatever fish are here we can't eat them. It was Becky who - I asked her, you know, the night before, Neal, we ate redfish. I didn't know, as a Westerner, what redfish was. Her son, Jordan, ran outside and then said, let's go find one. We went out onto the bayou, full moon, he was in his boat with his friend Donna(ph). Second cast, this beautiful redfish came. He brought it up to his mother. She held it in her hands as it was breathing. And there were these golden scales with the round black mark on its tail.

You know, the redfish on the plate is the redfish in the bayou is the redfish in the sea. It's this interconnectedness that I feel like we're missing. And I was so struck by today's headlines in the USA Today. How much is a pelican worth? If you can believe this, an economist literally said, $328.63. I want to say, how do you put a price on 30 million years of evolution, of perfection, of an animal that has not changed in 30 million years, so perfect is its design?

I think we need a new story. And it's people like Becky Duet. It's people like Lori DeAngelis and Margaret Curole, who were telling us this story that we are engaged in is the wrong story - which is about greed, denial and madness.

CONAN: Musheer, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. We're talking with Terry Tempest Williams. Her piece "The Gulf Between Us" is in the November/December issue of Orion magazine. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And you actually took a flight one day, out to see what, in another context, we would have called Ground Zero.

Ms. Williams: Tom Hutchins, a barefoot pilot, he took us out to the Macondo Well to what is now known as the source. We were flying 800 feet above the Gulf for four and a half hours. It was on day 100, Neal, where The New York Times, above the fold, right-hand corner, said that the oil was gone.

What I can tell you is that as far as we could see, as wide as we could see, as long as you could bear it, oil - oil like stretch marks on a belly, oil -rivers of oil as wide as the Mississippi itself. Our eyes burned, our nostrils were blistered. I cannot tell you.

And, you know, you think who's reporting this? What is it that they don't want to know and why? And I guess the question I just kept saying is, where is our outrage, and where is our love? This beautiful Gulf, this beautiful Mississippi Delta with islands beaded with birds. I mean, that's the other untold story, is the beauty, it's still there. And as we speak, one billion birds are migrating through the Gulf now.

CONAN: Let's go to Robin(ph), Robin with us from Orange Beach in Alabama.

ROBIN (Caller): Hi. How you guys doing today?

CONAN: Very well. Thank you.

ROBIN: Good.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Robin, hello.

ROBIN: How are you, Terry?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I'm so glad you're here. Tell us how you are.

ROBIN: Oh, I'm doing somewhat better. There's a lot of us here that are still complaining. I've got a bunch of phone calls this morning. You know, I can - I keep the sore throat that I acquired four months ago and the coughing, but I'm doing a lot better than I was the last time you were here.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Robin, tell us about what you did, your women friends, community members, about water samples, blood tests, and how you formed Guardians for the Gulf?

ROBIN: Well, Guardians of the Gulf was another one of our property owners who just happens to be an attorney and was extremely concerned that all attorneys were going to flock down here and take advantage of everyone. So we formed Guardians of the Gulf. And it was initially started to educate the community about what was fixin' to happen here.

Luther(ph) spent a great deal of time talking with people in Alaska. And we discovered Dr. Riki Ott in New Orleans, so we flew down there and picked her up and brought her back to Orange Beach and got her to speak before our community numerous times, to let us know what was going to happen. And this was before the oil hit our beach. And...

CONAN: When you say Alaska - and I should point out Robin is one of the people who's profiled in Terry Tempest Williams' article. When you say from Alaska, Prince William Sound was the model you were taking.

ROBIN: Absolutely. We talked to all of those people. They have a Citizens' Advisory Board. We spoke to those folks. We spoke to Dr. Riki Ott's assistant. We found Riki in New Orleans, because when she heard what happened, she immediately hit the airplane and came down, because she knew what was going to happen to our communities.

And so we brought her back and forth. And at first, you know, the Guardians of the Gulf was just to inform people. And then I started getting sick and other people starting and, you know, so we thought, well, maybe we need to shift our focus a little bit. We can still work on, you know, worrying about our communities and our business and financial, but there's a lot of folks getting sick.

And when I got bedridden and had to go and have the test - there's a specialized test that will show volatile organic compound in your blood. And it's made by Nanometrics. And it was invented years ago for this purpose. And when they got my blood work back, it showed very high levels of six of the volatile organic compounds that are found both in oil and the dispersants, the dispersants that they were using was the Corexit 9527 and the 9500.

CONAN: And...

ROBIN: One so high, the lab even put a great big H beside it, and that chemical was hexane. All of these are extremely disruptive to your body. You breathe it in, it goes into your blood stream, it settles in your fatty tissues and your organs and you're virtually left helpless. There's all kinds of complications that occur in the short term and in the long term.

CONAN: Robin, I'm glad to hear that you're doing better. And we just have a few seconds left. Terry Tempest Williams, I was wondering - the oil is out of sight, is it out of mind?

Ms. WILLIAMS: The oil is still there. The people are still there. One of the water tests that Robin and her community members had tested, blew up, was deemed inconclusive. We have to stay awake. We can engage. And we can use this as an opportunity to say that we need a different way of being. It's a spiritual crisis as well as a political crisis and an ecological one.

CONAN: Terry Tempest Williams' piece appears in Orion magazine. She joined us from KUER, a member station in Salt Lake City. Thanks very much.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE Friday. Ira Flatow will be here. We'll see you again on Monday. Have a good weekend. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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