New Orleans is, for many people, synonymous with disaster. But disaster has been the last thing on the minds of New Orleanians in the past few months, at least prior to the explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig off the Louisiana coast on April 20. Tourism was up, the local economy was growing at a steady pace, a new mayor had come into office, and most importantly, the city was still enthralled by the Saints’ stunning victory in Super Bowl XLIV. The Crescent City was back from the near death experience of Katrina. This most history-haunted of America’s cities was finally looking forward.
Perhaps it was this lingering euphoria that kept the full impact of the spill from coming home to residents of the Gulf Coast for several weeks. The pictures of the massive rig collapsing into the Gulf shocked locals and got brief mentions in the national papers. News that the well was leaking took several additional days to filter out. Nearly two weeks after the rig exploded, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke off-handedly in his inaugural address about how “[e]very practical resource of the government and the private sector will be brought to bear to deal with this catastrophe,” before moving on to celebrate the city’s rebirth after Katrina. The Obama administration spent several days quietly dithering about how the spill would affect its plans to pass an energy bill through Congress in the summer. Even Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who has been screaming loudest and longest about the sluggish federal reaction, was initially muted. The week after the explosion, Jindal’s official blog briefly mentioned “the possible effects of oil on our coast” before going on to discuss positive economic reports and a ceremony honoring Louisiana veterans.
Official reaction is muted no longer. Jindal has been a constant presence, pushing a plan to erect sand berms along the coast and briefly daring the EPA, which opposed the plan, to arrest him if he ordered it. The administration lurched into sudden thuggishness, with the bespectacled Interior Secretary Ken Salazar spouting about putting a “boot on the neck” of rig owner British Petroleum. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, downtown lunch patrons formed a long line outside Commerce, a counter lunch joint where ladies who call you “baby” serve the best shrimp and oyster po-boys in the central business district. Better get some shrimp now, they told each other. Who knows when we’ll get it again?
For many Louisianans, the moment the spill went from a personal tragedy and public nuisance to an outright disaster, it had to do, as so much does down here, with food. On May 2, 2010, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration closed a portion of the Gulf to commercial fishing. In the colorless prose of federal regulation, the agency noted that “Sale of adulterated seafood is not in the public interest” but was at pains to emphasize that 94.5 percent of the Gulf remained open. But the camel’s nose was under the tent. Five days later a new closure order extended the ban, and on May 14 NOAA issued an emergency rule closing much of the central Gulf to fishing until “existing emergency conditions from the oil spill no longer exist.” With the failure, over Memorial Day weekend, of BP’s “top kill” effort to plug the leak, that order is unlikely to be revisited for months to come, except to expand the prohibited area.
The order made official what had been apparent for days: the Deepwater Horizon spill is a dire threat to one of the most economically productive and environmentally sensitive regions in the country. It is difficult to underestimate the extent to which the coast is a driver of Louisiana’s economy. The state’s fisheries produce more than all Atlantic coast fisheries combined and contribute more than $700 million to the state’s economy. A direct line of economic production links the famous barbeque shrimp served to tourists at Pascal’s Manale or the soft-shell crabs at Brigtsen’s, back to the boats that tie up at Venice and Galliano down in the bayous. Thousands of jobs in the region depend on fishing and fishing-related tourism. Even before Deepwater Horizon exploded, this area was under stress. The state loses the equivalent of a football field of wetlands every day to rising seas, and Katrina wiped out 217 square miles of coastal wetlands in one day, destroying valuable shrimping and fish-spawning areas. Before top kill failed, the Harte Research Institute at the University of Texas estimated that $1.6 billion in economic activity is at risk from the oil spill. If the Gulf Coast faces months more of spewing oil, that number will almost certainly be revised upwards.
As yet unestimated, but sure to be substantial, is the psychological effect of the spill on a region that so recently looked as if it had shaken off the near-death experience of Katrina. Today, Louisiana is one of the least economically stressed states in the country, with an unemployment rate nearly three percentage points lower than the national average. New Orleans has gained residents steadily, inching over 300,000 in 2008 and on track to settle at nearly 80 percent of the pre-Katrina count of 455,000. Housing starts are up and dozens of buildings in the central business district are being renovated. The city’s public schools are still troubled, but there are glimmers of hope in a system that has been reorganized from top to bottom, with thousands of children streaming into a new, comprehensive network of charter schools. Crime remains high but has plateaued, and a federal investigation of the New Orleans police department holds the promise of cleaning out corrupt holdovers in that deeply troubled force. In his mayoral run, Mitch Landrieu assembled a coalition that, for the first time in decades, reached across lines of race and class in this most segregated of cities. Federal prosecutor Jim Letten, a drum-playing local boy with a Joe Friday manner and luxuriant mustache, has racked up an impressive string of prosecutions, rooting out political corruption at all levels of state and local government. The national attention surrounding the Super Bowl put New Orleans and the region in a national spotlight that revealed a confident, revitalized city. Residents here began to feel like the bad days were finally behind them.
All of that forward momentum is at risk today. The day after it became apparent that top kill had failed, a pall fell over the city. At my church in the Riverbend section of the city, Mater Dolorosa—the Marsalis family, famous jazz musicians, used to play in the adjoining elementary school’s band—the pastor, a Louisiana native, gathered the parish’s children around him. You may be asking, he told the children and their parents, why God has allowed this to happen. God doesn’t cause evil; but he can bring good out of it, just like he brought good out of Katrina, and we must believe he will bring good out this oil spill. It was striking that the priest employed language more often associated with comforting the bereaved than with explaining an environmental and public policy crisis. But it made sense. In New Orleans and Louisiana, it feels as if there’s been a death in the family.
Justin Torres is a writer and attorney in New Orleans.