The fourth-most destructive hurricane in U.S. history came ashore in Louisiana fewer than two years ago — and most Americans probably don't even remember its name. Hurricane Ike barreled into Cameron Parish in 2008 and wiped out entire towns, including Hackberry and Cameron. Ike unleashed flooding from Texas to the Florida Panhandle and all the way inland to Ohio. Many communities are still trying to recover from what the National Hurricane Center estimates is $18 billion worth of damage.
Heard much about Ike lately? Of course you haven't. Without images like the ones of New Orleans engulfed in floodwaters after the federal floodwall failures, disasters such as Ike all too often disappear from the radar screens of everyone who wasn't directly affected by it. Newspapers and TV news crews move on to the next disaster, the next scandal, the next distraction long before the real story is over. So with the possibility of a cap or a relief well stanching the Deepwater Horizon underwater oil gusher, there's a very real chance that Americans may mistake that for the end of the story — and turn their attention elsewhere.
It's not, and they shouldn't. As Gov. Bobby Jindal told the press on July 20, "We were the first state to be oiled, and we'll be the last state to be oiled." Long after media and public attention have moved on to something else, coastal communities will still be grappling with this catastrophe. We cannot afford to let the spotlight dim on recovery efforts.
"Something like this happens, and people say, 'Oh, it'll be back,'" warned Dr. Martin O'Connell, director of the University of New Orleans' Nekton Research Laboratory. "There are significant declines in certain species that you don't see overnight because they're so resilient. You can drop a nuclear device in Lake [Pontchartrain, and] next year pretty much all the species are going to be back. It's this long-term decline. ... This is just going to put us back 10, 20 years at a minimum."
O'Connell said that in May, when the disaster was days, not months, old. Since then, the hole at the bottom of the sea has pumped at least eight times more oil into the Gulf of Mexico than the Exxon Valdez spilled into Prince William Sound in March 1989. Oyster beds have been wrecked for years and marine life killed in numbers we can't even approximate. A previously self-sufficient population has seen its heritage torn apart and its jobs ripped away. Food banks and animal shelters are feeling the stress, and doctors fear the mental health toll has yet to register. Meanwhile, the ecological, financial, cultural and emotional catastrophe continues. Despite attempts to halt new oil entering the Gulf, the damage already has been done, O'Connell said last week.
In a television ad in June, BP CEO Tony Hayward famously promised, "We will get this done. We will make this right." Ask any resident of Prince William Sound, and they'll tell you oil still stains the sands there and life still is not back to normal. Some locals' claims against Exxon were finally settled in June 2009 — more than 20 years after the damage was done.
BP's commitment to "make it right" no doubt will wane in direct proportion to media attention. The media and the public therefore must keep the heat — and the light — on both the oil giant and the federal government. It was good to hear President Barack Obama acknowledge this in his July 16 press conference, when he said, "One of the problems with having this camera down there is, is that when the oil stops gushing, everybody feels like we're done — and we're not."
Scott Walker of WDSU-TV spent a week anchoring the news from Grand Isle. Walker told Gambit last week, "One person I talked to said, 'What I'm concerned about is three months from now, four months from now, when the story's not as big and there's no one here, then we're going to have a bunch of problems.'"
The only way to make sure the people of the coast aren't forgotten by BP or the feds is to keep a light shining on their stories. Capping the gusher is hardly the end of this Louisiana story. In fact, it's just the beginning.