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May 25, 2010

My Poor Louisiana

Roy Meachum

Pictures of oil-soaked birds do not remind me of my Louisiana boyhood, but a Washington television assignment.


One morning walking into the newsroom, the editor announced a camera crew and I were headed for a tanker spill in the Delaware River, somewhere around Philadelphia. Accustomed to “inside reporting,” my attire consisted of a not very warm tweed suit and a leather trench coat that I had relied on in Italy, while covering the Vatican.


When the network’s car landed on the river’s banks, how I was dressed became a major factor; the winds were howling along the Delaware, kicking up sand and making rescue efforts chancy. Leather, I learned, was not for warmth but to fend off blustery breezes. I was cold enough that I ruminated on how a guy my age (48) could be still taking assignments like this.


In any event, we searched but found no critters on the shore; instead, back in the crew car we heard about the collection and oil treatment point. We filmed lots of birds, looking piteously in great discomfort. The editor and New York friends told me how well the story worked. This was not because of childhood experiences.


Reaching back for Hurricane Katrina and what is now happening clash with my memories. We had no destroying storms or massive spills in my youth. Checking the record, it seems that Katrina’s older sisters did not hit New Orleans in the years before I left for the Army. With a school backing up to the Mississippi River levee and alongside the Industrial Canal, we never had warnings of high water.


While I was living safely in Washington, Hurricane Audrey came to visit the campus, sweeping away century-old buildings that were put up when Holy Cross was still a cotton plantation, before the Civil War. Audrey meant no more boarders; I lived in St. Dominick’s Hall my years as a senior boy. The winds blew my former room away, together with the “bookstore” on the first floor, which offered oyster sandwiches on French bread for two-bits.


Sometime before the 1965 hurricane, man’s greed overcame respect for the marsh and bayou territory that protected the city from the big blows. Hungry for big ships that could not navigate quickly the winding course from the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans port authorities managed to nag the Corps of Engineers into straightening out the Mississippi, creating a straight shot for the wharves. This is how Audrey and later Katrina reached the foot of Canal Street and the bend in the river that I called home while growing up.


As for the dangerous situation that exists at this writing: Louisiana has “always” been an oil state, well, ever since petroleum came into demand.


A Texas gentleman of a certain age, when I was very young, had responsibility for several “off-shore” wells. They were somewhere in the marsh land or tucked into the Gulf shore. Science had not reached the point where drilling could be done miles from the coast and miles deep. That developed since I moved to Frederick, in 1983, as far as I know.


A guy I met on Pushkin’s daily walks was on medical leave, in Maryland to see his daughter. He usually hung around New Iberia, once famous world-wide for producing Tabasco sauce, now known for servicing floating, drilling operations. He worked on an oil rig. The last I heard he went back. I hope he didn’t work for British Petroleum.


I will be enormously disappointed if the Obama Administration doesn’t force BP to pay every penny – each sou – of cleaning and rehabilitation of the Gulf of Mexico and my home state’s coastal waters. I would like the company to be assessed a huge fine that could be used to reimburse workers and companies affected.


It’s been reported that the multinational petroleum corporation was not required to meet every federal regulation and rule, but that was in the total laissez-faire attitude adopted by the last GOP administration toward big business.


Greed was mentioned earlier; it was not meant in terms of stockholders but for you and me. We keep on burning gasoline as if the supply were endless. It’s not.


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