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Obama’s Trips to the Gulf Serve an Important Need
Posted on Jun 7, 2010
Truthdig has a stable of first-class columnists, and one of them is Ruth Marcus, who became a regular on the website last year. To say that her résumé is good is like saying Kobe Bryant is a good basketball player: Marcus is a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law; was a finalist for a Pulitzer in 2007; is an editorial writer for The Washington Post; and writes a weekly column that appears in that esteemed publication as well as in other print outlets and on Internet sites including Truthdig.
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Those lines lingered with me, and the more I turned them over in my mind the more I found myself agreeing heartily with parts of the sentences but disagreeing with other parts of the same sentences.
Marcus is one of many commentators weighing in on a tragedy that came after a tragedy: First 11 men died in an offshore oil rig explosion and then crude spread throughout vast areas of the Gulf and onto some Louisiana beaches and marshes. Last week’s column rightly argues that it’s not important whether Obama’s jaw tightens in anger when he speaks of the oil spill; rather, she writes, what’s important is to find out how the accident happened, whether government failure was involved, how a recurrence can be avoided, and how the flow of oil can be stemmed.
I’m distressed by what is happening along the coast of the state in which I grew up. This is the fifth heavy blow that Louisiana has taken since August of 2005—hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike, and now this.
I spent the first part of my life in a tiny town in southwest Louisiana about 25 miles northwest of Holly Beach and Cameron, coastal communities on the so-called Cajun Riviera. Like almost everyone else in the area I was deeply aware of the importance of the Gulf waters and the coastal wetlands to the local economy and culture. I was also aware of the importance of oil drilling. In my boyhood years in the South, there was little controversy over whether oil exploration was the right thing to do, and in some sections of southern Louisiana the argument over the question of drilling has yet to gain much traction.
Both of my grandfathers, like so many men of the middle or lower class, worked at times in the “oil patch.” It was hard work, dirty and dangerous. I recall the funeral of a classmate who died days after his oil-soaked overalls ignited, and another schoolmate’s tale of falling from a derrick. Danger aside, the jobs were welcome and eagerly sought by workers; oil was king years ago in those parts, and it is king now, for better or worse. The pay on the rigs can be good, especially for those who work offshore. Roughnecks, roustabouts and others spend long periods out in the Gulf, where there are few opportunities to spend the money they are earning; many of them are packing hefty paychecks when they set foot on land again.
The Deepwater Horizon accident and its aftermath have been an emotional whipsaw for south Louisiana, churning it with conflicting forces. The oil industry—drilling, refineries and related operations—is an essential economic engine for the area, but that industry has now spawned unimaginable pollution that threatens to destroy beaches, marshes, sport fishing, commercial fishing, shrimping, oyster harvests, pleasure boating, tourism and other activities and businesses. Many of those who depend on oil for their livelihoods feel as though the hand that has long fed them, and will do so in the future, is now brutalizing them.
The damage to Louisiana’s morale has been evident in my phone calls from Los Angeles to friends and relatives and in my reading of news accounts filed by the hundreds of reporters now prowling the state’s shoreline. Most of the residents there did not see what was to come when the first word of the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon was broadcast. After all, folks in oil drilling and refining areas tend to have a fatalistic acceptance of the fact that there will occasionally be explosions and fires and loss of life. But within days, after the rig sank, it was clear that this was not a run-of-the-mill oil field accident.
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