NEW ORLEANS — Relief wells. Top kill. Tar balls.
You’ve likely heard those terms if you’ve been anywhere near a TV, radio or computer over the last two months. You probably also know that Deepwater Horizon was the name of the drilling rig that exploded, and, possibly, the names of some of the biggest cleanup ships, if you’ve been paying careful attention.
The spill — a product of scientific ambition gone wrong, if anything — has resulted in an arresting technological display that the Associated Press has done a fine job of documenting and that the Missourian has diligently reproduced in its online and print editions.
Arguably, one of the most frustrating parts of the spill has been the utter uselessness of that technology in stopping the leak, which approaches its three-month anniversary next week. Three months, I think, is long enough to prattle on with our usual confidence about engineering know-how. Forty years ago we put a human being on the moon; this morning, we will put armies of people on the beaches with plastic bags and shovels.
If the duration of the spill seems painfully prolonged, it’s going to be a blip compared to the slow-motion human disaster that will play out in the Gulf for years to come. Will the fishing and tourism industries recover? How much mental stress can these communities — still living with the enduring trauma of Hurricane Katrina — endure? Will lifelong residents abandon the coast, as many did following that storm?
There’s nothing wrong with reporting on the technology of the cleanup, the political implications of the spill, or on oil-covered birds. Stopping the oil is everything, right now. BP is telling the world that it took the first real steps Tuesday toward slowly, carefully shutting off the flow of oil completely.
But if there’s anything that’s been missing in most of the reporting from the Gulf, it’s the impact on the human organism.
So with that in mind, I’ll be spending the next five days looking for those stories in oil-bespoiled southern Louisiana, listening to anyone who’s got something to say. With any luck, we’ll get an honest look at what it’s like to be one of the thousands of Americans who are living in the midst of an environmental catastrophe — and who are already in the middle of an economic, social and psychological one.
Matt Pearce is an assistant city editor for the Columbia Missourian and a graduate student at the MU School of Journalism.