A few years back, the History Channel aired a mini-series called 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America, featuring events as diverse as the McKinley assassination and the first time Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. If someone was to re-do that series now, they would almost certainly add April 20, 2010 to the list.
Today marks a milestone no one wanted to reach- fifty days since the start of the BP Gulf Oil Spill. Late on the night of April 20, the Deepwater Horizon, an offshore oil rig, exploded, causing a fire. Although most of the workers on the rig were successfully evacuated, 17 were injured and 11 missing and presumed dead. Two days later, on Earth Day, the rig finally sank and an oil slick appeared on the water’s surface.
The oil leak wasn’t officially confirmed until that Saturday, the 24th. Four days later, the U.S. Coast Guard estimated that each day 210,000 gallons (5,000 barrels) of oil were seeping into the Gulf of Mexico. On May 4, just two weeks after the initial explosion, oil began reaching Louisiana’s barrier islands. According to government estimates released on May 27, between 18.6-29.5 million gallons had leaked into the Gulf. The BP oil spill is now the largest in U.S. history. (By comparison, 11 millions gallons of leaked during 1989’s Exxon Valdez oil spill.)
Not even a week later, on June 1, the oil hit Mississippi and Alabama. Just this past Friday, tarballs washed ashore in Pensacola, a city on Florida’s panhandle. It was a day millions of Floridians, myself included, were dreading.
I won’t go too much into the politics of this whole mess. BP and the U.S. government have both been ineffective these last few weeks and need to take ownership. BP’s efforts to cap the leak- the leak that’s 5,000 feet underwater- have been moderate successes at best, futile at worst. To say the oil giant is facing a PR nightmare is an understatement; to counter, BP is spending millions on advertising instead of clean-up.
We are now fifty days into the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history. And ironically enough, it’s World Oceans Day.
The more I read and see about this story, the more heartbreaking it gets. It’s the animals- the birds covered in sludge, the dolphins dying. It’s the priceless wetlands- the unique and fragile ecosystems of the Gulf. It’s the people- the countless families who practically lost their livelihoods the moment the leak began. For now, we can only see the oil at the surface, just like we can only see the surface of the damage that has been caused.
The oil spill couldn’t have come at worse time. It happened in the middle of spring, a time of growth and renewal for nature. Spring is absolutely critical- it will take years for the animals and environments of the Gulf to recover. Hurricane season is now upon us. God forbid a storm sweeps through the Gulf and lets the oil rain down inland. Along with hurricane season comes summer, a crucial time for tourism in the South. In so many places along the Gulf, such as Grand Isle and Florida especially, tourism dollars make the economy go around.
Last summer, I made two trips to Florida’s Gulf Coast. Now more than ever, I am incredibly grateful to have seen first-hand the beauty of Marco Island and Naples. (*These are my personal photos.)
I don’t know what the future holds for the Gulf. I hope the oil never has to reach South Florida, or any more beaches for that matter. But I don’t have any control over it- that power lies in BP and the government to contain the spill and clean up the mess. Everyday citizens have been doing what they can to help since Day 1. Unfortunately, so much damage has already been done that it will take years to know the full extent. I just have to hope that future generations can appreciate the environment before they risk losing it.