Grand Isle, Louisiana, May 23
A semipalmated sandpiper pitter patters down the beach, feeding from sand laced with sticky red puddles of oil. The bird has red smeared across its flanks and face. Nearby, a flock of sanderlings pecks for worms and mollusks. The sand they’re feeding from is riddled with globs of oil and at least five of them are smothered in the stuff. Near the water’s edge, the beach is red. And out in the Gulf, wave after wave crests red, unloading a new supply of crude with every crash.
This is Grand Isle State Park, a barrier island retreat that on typical May weekends is bustling with beachgoers. The nearby town of Grand Isle is a summery community of daiquiri bars, seafood restaurants and beachside homes colored sherbet and baby blue. But today a pall has been cast upon the town, after weeks of waiting for oil and hoping it would stay offshore, it has arrived, the first oil to hit a populated part of the coast. Other than a pair of CNN reporters, a French film crew and the sheriff, the beach is empty, except of course for the birds, many of them migrants on their way to the Arctic. Those with oil may never make it.
“It is distressing,” says Tamara Augustine, the park’s manager, who lives in a yellow cabin in the dunes. “I see it happening and I’m watching minute by minute and that’s all I can do, just watch.”
The National Guard arrived today with a fleet of trucks and a grand and undeveloped idea. They want to build some sort of barrier along the shore, a new oil-stopping technique. They’ll get started tomorrow, but nobody is quite sure what they’re up to, and after dropping off their equipment they are nowhere to be seen. “They didn’t tell me much” says Tamara. “They seemed to be in a rush.”
They are also late. The oil began washing ashore on Grand Isle early Friday morning, and it hasn’t stopped since. As the sun sets choppers rifle across the sky and boom bounces about like boiling spaghettii. Oddly, marine life carries on as if nothing is new; mullet jump from the water and snowy egrets survey the beach from a breakwater. A single dolphin swims by, its fin slicing through red waves of oil.
At a seafood restaurant in town, a table of CBS reporters tell oil spill war stories and a couple of Audubon workers eat crab. Rhea Pelotto, the restaurant manager, excitedly brings over a book about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and opens to a page with a picture of a smiling woman in a yellow smock. “You see this woman,” says Rhea. “She was just washing the clothes of the workers who were cleaning up the oil and got some sort of respiratory ailment, now she is suffering!”
The thought of her own beach now smothered in oil brings tears to Rhea's eyes. “I just can’t wrap my mind around it,” she says. “Nobody can.”