I’m driving from Bayou La Batr down to Gulf Shores, the Miami Beach of southern Alabama. It’s August; tourist season should be in full swing but I see no traffic. The high rise condos, quiet on the beach, stand in stark contrast to the natural landscape. Many of these structures are half-finished and given the economic devastation caused by the spill here, I’d wager some are in the “never to be finished” category. I knew nostalgic stories of a friend’s beach dreams had here; she has served as my text messaging Virgil as I’ve explored the region and this unrelenting hell the people have endured. Part of me is glad she’s not here to see what I’ve seen; it’s better to let her keep her good memories of this place.
Over the radio, NPR is reporting that Alabama will sue BP for an undisclosed amount. It’s the first such statewide lawsuit filed. Governor Riley wants to keep it out of the courts and settle, but Alabama’s attorney general has different ideas and they hint at a political conflict. Like everything happening in the region, confusion and fear reigns, and good policy and science – unlike the oil – is not dispersing.
I walk with our videographer in front of a resort where a few random tourists are occupying the beach. It’s an area where sand has been trucked in to cover the oil. Cabanas and lounge chairs rest on top. The scene is one of post apocalypse in paradise. Just a month ago, there were puddles of oil on this beach.
We ask the cabana boy for a shovel and begin to dig. We dig three feet down to the water line, and stratified throughout is oil. Tarballs. We knew they were here: the wind over the beach smells like an auto parts store. We’re not sure if the water is safe or not, and the signage doesn’t help much: all it says is that the water has been affected by oil and if you come into contact with it, it will not be good. But still, a few children are body surfing as their parents lounge in the sun. The videographer, John Waller, normally a stoic presence, can’t believe what he’s seeing. “What mother would – I can’t believe – I mean seriously!”
Just beyond the beachgoers, there is yet another Incident Command Unit. As we approach, walking the beach where the resorts stop, the tarballs grow by degrees in number. Closing in, we count 12 men working. They have a contraption that resembles a screen door and they are sifting sand for oil, then bagging it in plastic bags to be hauled away. Asking the men where it goes, they don’t have an answer. The ubiquitous “theys” that occupy hierarchy here “take care of it.”
This is far and away the most absurd thing I’ve seen in a three-state tour of oil-affected areas. Imagine sifting millions of cubic feet of sand with a f#@&ing screen door. This is humanity reduced to helplessness. This is pissing in the wind.
The Gulf Shores is home to Loggerneck and (less commonly), Kemps Ridley turtle nests. The incubation for turtles is 55-70 days, and their mystical geo-location system (the faculty by which the females navigate back to the place of their nesting to lay eggs of their own) is online by 40 days. Typically, there are around 50 nests a year in the area.
We’re here to meet Mike Reynolds, Turtle Czar, who oversees a volunteer program called Share The Beach that ensures that turtle nests are left undisturbed by humans. But because of the BP oil spill, Reynolds is organizing turtle egg relocation to Cape Canaveral, Florida (after the turtles’ geolocation device has developed), to be hatched in the open Atlantic. Reynolds is concerned about the effect of oil and dispersants in the water on the youngsters and doesn’t believe it’s safe for the Loggernecks to swim in the open gulf. Besides, with what oil remains in the open, ambient water, there could be an issue with the patches of Sargassum, a surface floating weed where hatchlings find food and shelter from predators as they develop. If the Sargassum patches are tainted, it’s bad news for turtles. And given the devastation already wreaked on the population by the spill, Reynolds isn’t taking any chances.
Not 300 feet away, people are swimming in the water while people like Reynolds are relocating turtles for fear of their health. I ask him about this point. He responds with a hint of irony, “Well, I guess, humans aren’t as endangered as turtles are.”