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I know this: Mourning another disaster on the Gulf Coast Part 1 of 2

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The oil-soaked marshes were silent when Rhonda Jackson toured them recently. Photo by Audra Melton/Oxfam America
The oil-soaked marshes were silent when Rhonda Jackson toured them recently. Photo by Audra Melton/Oxfam America

Rhonda Jackson is an Oxfam America Gulf Coast program manager. Here is her account of what she saw on a recent field visit through Louisiana’s marshes.

I have often said that—unlike most folks in my line of work—I’m no tree-hugger. I love people. I do this work because I want people to have the best. Yet, on a recent tour of the oil-soaked coast of Louisiana, I couldn’t help but want to hug each and every blade of marsh grass, to apologize on behalf of all humankind for this huge mess. I was saddened, angry, and hurt. I knew that what I was seeing was the end of something.

As a life-long resident of New Orleans and having survived Katrina, I know what the end of something beautiful and wonderful looks and feels like. I know that while things can and will eventually get better, they will never quite be the same and that those with the least will suffer and struggle the most. I know this because up until this oil spill, I had personally survived what had been called the worst disaster in America. I know this because while many of my own friends and family members survived, we are all different. I know this because while it is five years since Katrina, I am still in my own private battle with the state of Louisiana over its recovery and homeowner assistance program known as the Road Home. I know this because my grandmother, like many other elders in the area, died heartbroken soon after the storm.

Despite the oils containment booms, the marshes along the coast of Louisiana are suffering. Photo by Audra Melton/Oxfam America
Despite the oil containment booms, the marshes along the coast of Louisiana are suffering. Photo by Audra Melton/Oxfam America

As I looked at the oil soaked booms, I wondered just what the plan was and how we would know if it was working. The booms seem to be randomly placed, a few feet of boom, followed by empty spaces. They are called “oil containment booms,” yet it was immediately clear to me and the others on the boat that this technique was not working.  The areas that were protected by the booms had oil in the marshes well beyond where they were placed and the booms themselves were saturated and covered with the heavy thick oil.

Our tour guide for the day, a local resident who has made his living the past 27 years leasing his charter boat, explained to Oxfam staff and staff from our local partner organization that at this time of year the marshes are usually at their most lush: a vibrant green. That is not what we saw. The water was opaque and the bottom foot of the grasses was slick with oil. Above that, the plants were tan and brown; only the very tops of the marshes were green because the marshes were dying from their roots up.

 Home not only to more than 400 species of animals, these marshes are also the natural first line of defense in the event of a hurricane. In just weeks since coming ashore, the oil has taken a heavy toll on the marshland and in the coming weeks (i.e., the middle of hurricane season) the effects of the oil will only get worse.

As we rode through the marshes in our boat, a line from the old Gershwin song Summertime—“fish are jumping” —played over and over in my head. I knew that at this time of year, in these waters, I should see fish jumping, but we saw none. We did see a few birds. But we didn’t hear any sing. It was almost as if the birds themselves were in mourning.

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