In Pictures: America’s Prettiest Towns

A Reporter at Large

The Gulf War

Were there any heroes in the BP oil disaster?

by Raffi Khatchadourian March 14, 2011

Oil gathering above the Deepwater Horizon wellhead on May 6, 2010. The oceanographer Ed Levine said,

Oil gathering above the Deepwater Horizon wellhead on May 6, 2010. The oceanographer Ed Levine said, “With all of the skimmers in the world out there, you might as well be using thimbles.” Photograph by Daniel Beltrá.


The boat captain—an elderly man in coveralls who had spent most of his life on the water—was travelling along one of the main passes through the Louisiana marshland. He had steered his vessel, a rectangular flat-bottomed outboard, from a dock in St. Bernard Parish, navigating among the roseau cane and black mangroves. The sky was a pale-blue dome suspended over motionless white clouds. It was a June morning, and under a hot sun the bayou was permeated with quiet unease. Other vessels on the water were working to contain oil from the Deepwater Horizon well site, which, on April 20th, had erupted forty miles offshore––an explosion that left eleven men dead and threatened to render the coast an ecological wreck for years. The captain directed his boat past shrimp trawlers going out to sea, presumably to skim the oil in waters beyond the coastline. Three- and four-man teams in other small boats were laying down brightly colored boom: floating barriers designed to impede oil slicks. The boom looked like giant yellow Magic Markers, forming long chains across the labyrinthine bayous.

“I can see open water—just after that booming boat,” the captain called out. He looked out past a barge with piles of equipment stacked upon it. “No way to get around the boom,” he said. (Fearing that he might lose his contract with BP, which operated the Deepwater Horizon, he insisted that he not be named.) Next to him, Marty Cramer, a thin, middle-aged Californian with weathered skin, squinted and nodded. Cramer, a specialist in emergency response for oil spills, had flown to Louisiana to help hunt for the deepwater crude. He was working with a company called Polaris Applied Sciences, which had been hired by BP to map the oil as it came ashore. He was joined by Carol Oz, a scientist from the California Department of Fish and Game, and Vincent Chatelain, a volunteer from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. The team was one of six assessing marshes and beaches, using a method called Shoreline Clean-Up Assessment Technique, or SCAT.
Cramer had been surveying in Louisiana for almost three weeks. By then, heavily oiled marshes had become the staple subject of television crews and photographers. Their images, typically in tight focus, showed suffocating swirls of shimmery crude and sickly pelicans. The scenes were riveting and heartbreaking, but they fundamentally misrepresented the situation. For many responders, the amount of oil in the marshland was a relief. Cramer had worked on the Exxon Valdez spill, twenty-two years ago, and the difference between the oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and in the Gulf of Mexico was stark. In Alaska, a liquid façade of thick, waxy North Slope crude had coated nearly two hundred miles of rocky coast. The oil at the Gulf Coast did not remotely compare; by early summer, the crude gushing from the BP well had caused only twenty-five miles of “heavy oiling”—a SCAT term for coverage of more than fifty per cent—on the entire sixteen-hundred-mile Gulf coastline. One had to travel, sometimes an hour or more, to see the oil—one had to hunt for it.
Cramer studied the boom. “Well, maybe they can open it up for us,” he said.
“I don’t know how the hell we’re going to get out,” the captain said.
But by half past ten he had found a way through, and headed toward Deadman Island, a patch of tall grass in the water. Cramer recorded the location, and studied the grass with binoculars.
“Any oil-soaked pelicans out there?” Chatelain asked.
“Not that I can see,” Cramer said.
Oz peered at the island and reported that she could see laughing gulls and brown pelicans. “The birds seem to be nesting,” she said.
Deadman Island was surrounded by a band of yellow boom, but Cramer spotted some grass that looked oiled. “Go as close as you can,” he said, and the captain steered the boat toward some boom that was partially submerged.
“Can you jump it?” Cramer asked.
The captain glared at him, swung the boat around, and rammed its hull over the yellow barrier.
“I did not do this,” he said.
As the boat headed for the strip of brownish vegetation, Cramer looked at the grass with his binoculars. “I don’t think that’s oil,” he said. When the boat hit the shore, Oz leaned over and pulled several strands of the grass out of the water. Their stems were brown and lumpy, but the discoloration had nothing to do with pollution. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s natural growth.”

It has become conventional wisdom that the BP-funded response to the spill was a chaotic and mismanaged affair, driven by corporate avarice, lacking in urgency, and at times willfully negligent of the problem’s scope—the idea being that any organization that had caused such a catastrophe, and that was so clearly unprepared for it, could not in good faith clean up the scene of the disaster. The evidence for this is much like the imagery of heavy oiling: vivid and convincing upon first consideration, but also fragmentary, anecdotal. At the peak of the cleanup effort, forty-seven thousand people were fighting the oil, a community equivalent in size to Annapolis, or the workforce of G.M.—as one federal scientist called it, “a company built in the middle of the night.” In just half a year, the response expended nearly sixty million man-hours, roughly nine times what it took to build the Empire State Building. After the well ruptured, BP accepted help from competing oil companies, and hired the world’s leading oil-pollution specialists to run key operations. The logistical demands on the effort, which spanned the entire Gulf coast—a region of varied geography and political culture—were immense. President Obama was not exaggerating when he announced in June, “This is the largest response to an environmental disaster of this kind in the history of our country.”

BP hired the designer of SCAT, Ed Owens, a British geologist, to implement the surveys. Owens, a founder of Polaris Applied Sciences, is a broad-shouldered man in his mid-sixties who lives outside Seattle. Like many people in the world of spill response, he speaks about spills as if each were a military deployment. “I was in Desert Storm,” he told me, referring to the American military involvement in Kuwait, when Saddam Hussein released as much as nine million barrels of crude into the Persian Gulf—a defensive maneuver that caused the world’s largest oil spill. “We were in the middle of a war, and I am flying along the shoreline, videotaping, with a battery of Patriot missiles locked onto my helicopter.” He had come up with SCAT in 1989, after an oil barge collided with a tug off Washington State and released fifty-five hundred barrels of fuel, contaminating ninety-five miles of shoreline. Owens devised standard terminology for the various levels of pollution, and created surveys that allowed government responders and oil companies to trust the same data. Before that, Cramer told me, “people would look and say, ‘There’s a bunch of oil,’ but there wasn’t a real systematic process.”
In Louisiana, members of the SCAT teams regarded themselves as intelligence officers for the cleanup. Nearly every evening, they returned to a BP training facility outside Houma, forty-five miles southwest of New Orleans, one of the central hubs in the response. They crammed into a room where Owens listened to their findings. The information was analyzed by a night shift of technicians, and plotted on satellite maps so that the oil’s movements could be tracked.
On the boat, Cramer told the captain, “Oil was reported at 29.48, 89.17,” and they set off. The coördinates marked Gardner Island, a strip of marshland bisected by two rock jetties—part of a vast network of channels created by the oil industry to service rigs. Nearby in the water, stained boom was adrift and twisting in on itself like a befouled eel. The captain pulled near the shore, and the team jumped onto a beach covered in broken shells. A penumbra of trash—a cut-up tire, shards of plastic, water bottles—had formed along the waterline. But Cramer and his team were looking for oil, and at Gardner Island they finally found some: a narrow row of droplets on the beach.
“This is very light, less than one-per-cent coverage,” Cramer said, and recorded the finding. Then he walked a bit farther. “We’ve got a dead bird here,” he called out. “It looks like it is oily.” Everyone huddled around the bird. It was a pelican, its carcass stained with muck. Federal wildlife officials would have to pick up the remains, establish the cause of death, and catalogue the information. Looking at the carcass, Cramer said, “They get oil on their feathers, can’t maintain their insulation, and die of hypothermia. This is considered evidence now.”
While Oz called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on her cell phone, Cramer waded through a small inlet and continued surveying. He was walking slowly across the shells under the hot sun, his head turned toward the ground, but there was nothing else to record.

The old saying has it that oil and water don’t mix, but every day the world’s oceans absorb colossal amounts of oil. When hydrocarbons flow into the sea—whether from spills, or leaky ships, or natural seeps—experts call them “petroleum input.” The world’s total petroleum input is thought to be about three hundred and eighty million gallons per year—a quantity similar to the catastrophic Gulf War spill—with a fifth of it happening in American waters. Much of the input off the United States comes from natural seeps. Some of the largest of those are in the Gulf of Mexico, which is thought to absorb more than fifty million gallons of oil annually.

Approximately twenty thousand oil spills are reported in America every year. Most of them are small and do not attract much attention; only a tiny fraction cost more than a million dollars to clean up. An economy based on oil must be prepared to deal with large amounts of pollution, and over many decades this country has evolved a way to respond to spills. “There is no plan,” one politician took to saying as the response progressed last summer. But there was a plan. Its origins dated back to the first major industrial oil spill at sea: the collision of a tanker called the Torrey Canyon against Pollard Rock, off the coast of England, in 1967.
When the Torrey Canyon ran aground, its broken hull released thirty-seven million gallons of Kuwaiti crude into the water. Oil poured forth in heavy slabs: one drifted toward France; another coated two hundred miles of shoreline in western Cornwall. Twenty-five thousand birds died, and local communities and the British government fought to contain the mess. People on beaches tried in vain to soak up the oil with straw, or they used bulldozers and pumps to recover the oozing petroleum. From the other side of the Channel, the French government dumped three thousand tons of chalk containing stearic acid into the oil, hoping it would sink or disperse. Eventually, the Royal Navy bombed the tanker with a mixture of napalm, sodium chlorate, and aviation fuel, in an effort to incinerate the oil. This, too, was largely ineffective.
The American government watched the incident with alarm, and the following year Congress created the first National Contingency Plan—a blueprint for dealing with a similar catastrophe. A few years later, the Coast Guard set up three oil-spill strike teams in different parts of the country. But when the Exxon Valdez ran aground, in Prince William Sound, in 1989, this evolving system of spill response was put to a tremendous test, and in many ways it failed. Though the Exxon Valdez spill is only the world’s fifty-seventh largest, it was ecologically devastating. The rocky, remote Alaska shoreline was difficult to clean, and the subarctic weather made it impossible to work in winter. On a number of occasions, the response’s methods, such as the use of high-powered jets to blast crude off rocks and beaches, did more damage to the environment than the oil did—but public outrage often demanded action, even if scientists advised against it. Eleven thousand people gathered in Prince William Sound to assist in the effort, and they fell into arguments over basic decisions. Vice-Admiral Clyde Robbins, who led the federal spill response, struggled to get Exxon and government authorities to set aside their mutual distrust and collaborate. “It made it difficult to move ahead on anything,” he told me. “I didn’t really have authority.”
The problems that the Coast Guard faced in Alaska were not entirely about the oil. They were also about emergency response and public perception. “All oil spills are emotional events,” Ann Hayward-Walker, a responder who had worked on the Exxon Valdez incident, told me one evening in Houma. It is possible to fight a forest fire and not be distracted by how the calamity was caused, and whether the cause taints the integrity of the people who deal with it. But oil spills are saturated in blame and political confusion—and opportunity. There is a sense that they are not accidents but accidents waiting to happen, and thus acts of greed. As a result, oil-soaked birds and fish come to symbolize a reviled industry’s heedless behavior. Every year, as many as four hundred thousand birds are killed in America by electricity-generating wind turbines, but they do not make the cover of Time. Incremental ecological damage, even if it is severe, does not easily cause outrage.
Mistrust of Exxon, along with ambiguity over who was in charge, brought about the Oil Pollution Act, in 1990, which gave the Coast Guard full control in a spill. Rather than create an organizational structure from scratch, the Coast Guard borrowed one from forestry. In 1970, firestorms in California ravaged more than half a million acres, and at one point more than nineteen thousand people from five hundred agencies were trying to put out the flames. Equipment and manpower were marshalled in haphazard ways, and amid the confusion the fires grew worse. The Forest Service, along with other agencies, spent four years working out a solution to such problems, called the Incident Command System, or I.C.S. At its most basic level, I.C.S. divides labor into four groups: Command, Planning, Operations, and Logistics. Each team can grow rapidly as more people arrive. If the system is working well, a responder from New York can walk into an incident in Texas, be assigned to Logistics, and know what to do. “There is an elegance about it,” Ed Owens told me. The 9/11 Commission advised that I.C.S. be used in all domestic catastrophes, and in 2003 President George W. Bush made the recommendation law.
Shortly after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, the Coast Guard and BP, following the National Contingency Plan and I.C.S., came together in a swiftly expanding structure known as the Unified Command. Joining with BP was politically volatile. The company had a reputation for aggressive drilling and poor safety, and had been responsible for some of the greatest oil-industry disasters in recent history. In 2005, an explosion at the company’s Texas City Refinery killed fifteen people and injured a hundred and seventy; BP pleaded guilty to criminal charges. The following year, one of its pipelines ruptured in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, causing the largest spill in the North Slope. The company’s management of the Deepwater Horizon appeared to have been similarly reckless, and its response plan for the rig clearly inadequate. Like the rest of the industry, BP barely invested in technology or manpower devoted to oil pollution. In recent cost-cutting, its emergency-response division had been reduced from thirty-two people to eight, with only one employee, David Fritz, dedicated to oil-spill response full time. “I didn’t have programs,” Fritz told me. “The program was me.”
A joint headquarters called the Unified Area Command was set up in Robert, Louisiana, and it oversaw five Incident Command Posts, covering Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. The command posts in turn oversaw dozens of staging areas by the shore. At each echelon in the hierarchy, the government was legally in charge, but in practice federal officials collaborated with BP—a distinction that was often confusing to outsiders. At the Unified Area Command, Rear Admiral Mary Landry, the top federal officer, had legal authority over BP, but she told me that on a day-to-day basis she rarely needed to exercise it. As the response outgrew what BP was obligated by law to support, the company nonetheless gave the Coast Guard nearly everything it asked for, and experience dictated that collaboration usually led to the best outcome. BP was paying for the response, and could mobilize resources and expertise in a way that the government could not. “They could have said, ‘We’re not doing this,’ ” Landry told me. “ ‘We’re done. We’ll see you in the courts.’ ”
The Obama Administration quickly learned that talking about this relationship publicly was difficult. On April 29th, Janet Napolitano, the Secretary of Homeland Security, held a White House press briefing to explain the escalating national response. A Coast Guard officer, Rear Admiral Sally Brice-O’Hara, standing alongside her, was asked if the federal government intended to exclude BP from the cleanup and simply send the company a bill.
“We are certainly not at that point now,” she said. “And I don’t imagine, given the professionalism of our partner, BP, and—maybe ‘partner’ was—let me back up—”
“They are not our partner,” Napolitano interrupted. “They are not our partner.”
“Bad choice of words,” Brice-O’Hara hastily explained.
Soon after, Napolitano announced that Admiral Thad Allen, who was then the commandant of the Coast Guard, would be taking charge of the response on a national level. “We could never get past the perception—not the law, the perception—that somehow BP was making decisions independently, and that those decisions weren’t in the best interest of the response,” Allen told me. “We’re not talking about reality. Reality had no place in portions of this response. The perception that there wasn’t government oversight—clear down to where boom was going in the water—resulted in us redirecting resources to reinforce the fact, whether it was needed or not, that there was government oversight.”

The Houma Incident Command Post was situated amid wild grass near an interstate, in a large BP corporate-training center covered with white tile and glass. Across the highway was a gas station with a mini-mart, the only other structure in the area. Responders called the training center Houma, for the nearby city of the same name, as if the facility were a metropolis all to itself—which, in certain respects, it was. On the night of the blowout, the building was largely empty. But it was designed for emergency response, with generators and satellite communications. In the first days of the spill, local authorities parked trailers in front of it, and a BP manager scrambled to acquire everything from hotel rooms, for the expected influx of people, to office supplies and sophisticated printers that could generate maps of the oil. “We went to a local engineering firm and borrowed a plotter from them, until we could buy three or four more,” the manager told me. The community grew rapidly.

From Houma, responders fought the oil along the Louisiana shore and out near the source of the spill. At the operation’s peak, more than a thousand responders worked there, many of them nearly around the clock. Temporary offices were built alongside the facility. The parking lot was expanded until it reached beyond the highway, and vehicles had to be hired to shuttle people from their cars. One vehicle, a bus designed for bachelor parties, was equipped for pole dancing, and people sat awkwardly in its dimmed lights as they were driven to work. Men and women in blue Coast Guard uniforms came. Engineers and geologists in jeans and faded button-downs came. There were scientists, lawyers, members of the National Guard, a sheriff who sat out front to make sure there would be no trouble, and salesmen—some of them so eager that they made their pitches in the parking lot.
For most of April and May, the commander at Houma was a Coast Guard captain named Edwin Stanton, a Louisianan whose ancestors can be traced back to the first French expedition to the Gulf, more than three hundred years ago. “I have hunted and fished in the coastal waters, and have more than a passing familiarity with the lay of the land down here,” he told me. Stanton, a stout man with a shaved head and a welcoming, rounded countenance, has worked on oil spills for thirty years. He believes in a big show of force; for a spill in Puerto Rico, he once spent a hundred million dollars in three months. Stanton told me that he was following the Kime Directive, named for Admiral John Kime, a Coast Guard commandant who helped revamp the service’s approach to spills after the Exxon Valdez ran aground. Kime believed that overwhelming resources should be brought to a crisis—excess matériel could always be withdrawn—and Stanton tried to implement this philosophy at Houma. At the same time, he often spoke about the oil in a blunt and pragmatic manner, which some locals found upsetting. “Marshes before beaches!” he told responders: the marsh ecosystem was far more vulnerable, even if the beaches were cherished vacation spots.
When Stanton arrived, the response was taking shape; everyone worked in one room, and people wore color-coded vests designating their I.C.S. roles—red for Operations, blue for Planning, yellow for Logistics. The responders clustered in tribes around folding tables. Booming and skimming operations had begun, and airplanes were spraying chemical dispersants onto the oil to help it dissolve into the sea. At first, BP responders at Houma were making crucial decisions by videoconference with the company’s executives in Houston. Stanton insisted that this was crippling Houma’s effectiveness, and BP gave its employees greater autonomy.
Stanton had known many of the responders for years, and, shortly after he settled into his command, Ed Levine, a thin, soft-spoken man with glasses and a neatly trimmed beard, came to see him. Levine is an oceanographer who for twenty-three years has worked on spills for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, from an old Coast Guard building at the tip of Manhattan. NOAA has been cleaning up hazardous pollution with the Coast Guard since the nineteen-seventies, and Levine had come to serve as Houma’s chief federal scientist. “Our mantra was: What got spilled? Where is it going? What’s in its path?” he told me.
While the Deepwater Horizon was still afloat, there was no real oil spill to speak of. Crude and natural gas rushed up into the rig, and were incinerated in fires that had been consuming the structure. When the rig sank to the ocean floor, it created clouds of debris, making it difficult to tell how much oil was being released. “It took probably thirty-six hours to get good imagery, because so much sediment and silt was raised when the thing crashed,” Admiral Allen told me. After the sediment had cleared, days of bad weather further complicated underwater surveys of the wellhead area. Around this time, BP estimated that a thousand barrels per day were flowing out of the well—a provisional number that, NOAA announced, would be verified when the weather allowed. But the estimate, obviously inadequate, drew heavy criticism.
Before it was clear that the spill could not be readily contained, BP was reluctant to allow outside specialists to see the oil flow. “At first, a Webcam showing the wellhead was restricted viewing,” Levine told me. “Those images were very closely held, but I finally convinced BP to allow me to make a ten-second video, which I sent to Seattle,” where NOAA’s headquarters for oil-pollution response is situated. “The people in Seattle said, ‘We can’t guess how much is coming out of there.’ ”
Only under congressional pressure did BP publicly release high-definition video of the wellhead, and this secrecy reinforced the impression that the company was trying to obscure the problem. “The pipe wasn’t coming from a place above ground where you could see it, and I think the public felt that something was being hidden,” Levine said. “Even I felt it a little bit when BP wouldn’t let us show people what we were seeing.” Anderson Cooper, whose CNN news show, “AC360,” became a populist forum for Gulf locals to vent their frustrations, said one night on the air, “I mean, how do you know how to put out a fire unless you know how big the fire is?”
But, for the responders, a larger number would have made no immediate difference. Early in the spill, an internal Coast Guard communication noted that the blown-out well might release as much as a hundred and ten thousand barrels of oil into the Gulf per day. “The very first discussion we had was: Here is that worst-case scenario, and obviously that’s like an Exxon Valdez every couple of days,” Stanton told me. “But then the estimate came back from BP that it was a thousand barrels per day, and, you know, a thousand barrels per day is bad enough. I was going to be ordering in everything I could get. I ordered in every single federal response asset east and west of the Rocky Mountains.” Stanton brought in boom from Norway, and hired skimmers from Holland that could work at night and in rough weather. Levine told me, “We said, ‘We need everything,’ and it’s not like we’re going to ask for ten times everything. Everything is everything.”
Near the wellhead, crude was gathering in large, slick pools of red and brown fluid. One morning, Levine approached Stanton. “How come we’re not burning this?” he asked.
“You’re right!” Stanton said, and mockingly hit himself in the head. He had used burning to combat smaller oil spills in the marshes of the Mississippi Delta. But Levine had something different in mind: burning the oil offshore, in rough and open water, before it hit land. This had never been done before on a large scale. Stanton told BP’s top commander at Houma about the idea, and the next day the world’s leading expert in controlled burns, Alan Allen, came to the facility. Allen began his career on a spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, in 1969—the largest offshore blowout in American waters prior to the Deepwater Horizon—and several years later he had invented the technique. Special boom that could withstand temperatures hotter than two thousand degrees would be required. Neré Mabile, a BP engineer, told me, “In a matter of forty-eight hours, we got fire boom here. We got the right people together, and we went out and did the first burn—I think a hundred barrels.”
On April 28th, Levine left the command post to examine the test burn with David Fritz, the BP oil-spill adviser. It was the first time the two men had flown over the oil, and as they approached the wellhead they saw ribbons of crude extending to the horizon. Levine had once worked on a spill of about a thousand barrels in the Delaware River, and, as he looked down on the oil from the airplane window, he roughly calculated that the daily volume emanating from the BP well was ten times that amount.
“There’s a whole lot more than a thousand barrels coming out of there,” he told Fritz. “The estimates are very low.”
“Very low,” Fritz said.
They flew above a plane that was spraying dispersants, and over skimming vessels, and shrimp boats that were dragging boom in U-shaped arcs, gathering oil to be burned. “I do remember thinking how small those skimmers all looked,” Fritz recalled. “They had to go so slow, because that’s just the way the physics of skimming is. You’ve got this ocean full of oil and these tiny little skimmers that don’t appear to be moving, and it looked so fruitless.”
On the flight back to Houma, Fritz told Levine, “How humbling—to think that we are going to make any real dent in it.” They did not speak much for the remainder of the flight. Once they were back on land, Levine called Stanton. “This is going to be monumental,” he told him. “With all of the skimmers in the world out there, you might as well be using thimbles.”

In the first week of the spill, the vast ribbons of crude by the wellhead were not yet making landfall, but they were nonetheless daunting; even the oil’s chemistry was still a mystery. Although it was generally thought that the Deepwater Horizon had been drilling “light, sweet” crude, BP did not quickly provide the response with a specimen. “The first samples of oil came out of a skimmer,” Levine told me—thick blobs with the consistency of cold cream. Without any other evidence to assess, NOAA sent samples to Edward Overton, a professor emeritus of environmental sciences at Louisiana State University. He determined that they contained unusually high amounts of asphaltenes, heavy chemicals found in pavement. “My level of apprehension went from moderate to the red zone,” Overton told me. “It’s not going to be easy to degrade. It’s not going to be easy to burn. It’s not going to be easy to disperse.”

In the press, oil spills are typically judged by the amount of oil released, but volume can be a misleading standard. Wind patterns, ocean hydrodynamics, the chemistry of the oil, the temperature of the water—all these factors are significant. Within NOAA, the stories of two tankers have come to exemplify the way that chemistry and the environment can affect the outcome of a spill: the case of the Amoco Cadiz, and that of the Braer. In the spring of 1978, the Amoco Cadiz, carrying sixty million gallons of light crude, ran aground off the coast of France. The oil coated two hundred miles of coastline, in some places nearly two feet thick. People used boom, skimmers, and even “honey wagons,” vacuums designed to suck up liquid manure. “But this thing just overwhelmed anything that humans could do,” John Robinson, the founder of NOAA’s oil-pollution-response program, said. In contrast, the Braer broke apart off the coast of Scotland in 1993, and released twenty-five million gallons of Norwegian light crude—a spill more than twice the size of the Exxon Valdez—but the oil naturally dispersed very rapidly. “A couple of hundred metres from the ship, you took a sample and it didn’t look like oil; it looked like coffee,” a NOAA scientist told me. “If you stuck your hand in the water, and pulled it out, it didn’t feel slick or greasy.” Not long after the spill, barely any visible trace of it remained.
For Levine, the question of whether the BP oil would act like the crude from the Amoco Cadiz or like that from the Braer was essential to the shape of the cleanup. About a week after the first samples arrived, BP provided better specimens: the oil was exceptionally light. (The early samples were most likely residue from oil that had been burned.) Moreover, forty per cent of what was spewing out of the undersea wellhead was not oil but methane. “Once you started to get close to the site, you would find that you were in a very large patch—ten miles across—of thick oil that was perhaps a millimetre or two thick,” a responder told me. “It had a consistency to it not very different from water. When we first started, the image that we had in mind was the Exxon Valdez. Once we actually got there, you began to realize just how nonpersistent the oil was—only a small fraction persisted beyond twenty miles from the source.”

While operations took shape at Houma and at other command posts across the Gulf, officials in Louisiana began to mobilize their own response, mostly in parallel to the federal effort. On April 28th, the day Levine and Fritz flew over the oil, the official flow rate was increased to five thousand barrels, a very rough estimate made by NOAA scientists. (That estimate, it turned out, was also too low.) Governor Bobby Jindal, of Louisiana, declared a state of emergency, as did a number of local officials. The most prominent of them was Billy Nungesser, the president of Plaquemines Parish—in many respects, the region most vulnerable to oiling. To fight the oil, Nungesser had put together an initiative called the Inland Waterways Strike Force. He started a command center, and had an artist draw up a crest: a jumping marlin, two boats, a helicopter, and some boom, and beneath them three Latin words: protego nostrum facundia—roughly, “protect our resources.”

Like no other official during the spill, Nungesser embodied the rage, anxiety, and frustration that swept through South Louisiana. Physically, he resembles the atom bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki: his body, shaped like two parabolic cones stuck together at each base, is expansive at the midsection and then roundly tapers at either end. Ever since the spill began, he had adopted a Pattonesque attitude toward his parish—a demeanor that was either mocked by his constituents as political theatrics in a well-worn Louisiana style or admired for its vehement authenticity. One morning, he held a breakfast meeting at Lil’ G’s Kajun Restaurant, in Belle Chasse, and local oystermen got in his way to shake his hand. “That’s our general,” one of them said. “He’s got a set of nuts. Jindal is a scholar, but Billy—we are all his warriors.” When BP’s C.E.O., Tony Hayward, expressed doubt that oil was entering the marshland, Nungesser responded, “Let’s take him out there and dunk him in the water, and when he comes out black with oil, let’s ask him the same question.”
Plaquemines Parish is a place of diminishing geological fortunes. Unlike the land beneath Houston, or Boston, or Chicago—tectonic formations that developed over millions of years—its land is only a few thousand years old, and natural forces, among them hurricanes and rising seas and coastal erosion, regularly put it in peril. After hurricanes Katrina, Gustav, and Ike devastated the parish, it was easy to regard the BP oil spill as just another catastrophe bearing down on the state. And, as one Louisianan told me, “Kicking the hell out of the federal government is good sport down here.”
Shortly after the Deepwater Horizon sank, Nungesser’s director for coastal management, P. J. Hahn, went into the water near the wellhead with a team of divers. “From horizon to horizon, all you could see was oil, and we actually dove through it,” Hahn told me. “One of the divers got sick immediately. It coats you. My eyes got stuck, and I had to consciously open them to blink.” The oil, Hahn recalled, took the form of liquid clouds, dynamic and irregular, in some instances spreading downward thirty feet. He told Nungesser what he had seen, and Nungesser told me, “It scared the hell out of me.”
As the response grew, a Coast Guard captain took Nungesser and several other politicians on a helicopter flight over the Louisiana coastline. There were darkened spots on the water, which the politicians feared were oil, but they were only shadows created by cloud cover. “We are going to fight this offshore,” the captain said, over the din of the engines; Nungesser, he recalled, looked upon his threatened parish and grew quiet.
Later, Nungesser turned the trip into a parable—one that may have drifted from the truth but that nonetheless expressed a real difference between the Coast Guard and the Gulf communities in how each regarded the oil. “He said, ‘Don’t worry, Mr. President, we’re going to help you clean up,’ ” Nungesser said. “And I turned to him and said, ‘Land this chopper. There is no cleanup in South Louisiana. You either prevent it from getting in—or we’re dead.’ ”

On May 2nd, President Obama flew to Louisiana, and in Venice, a small dockside community in Plaquemines Parish, he met with Admiral Allen, Stanton, and several local politicians. By then, the most sophisticated aspects of Houma’s work—the controlled burns and the application of dispersants—were under way, but these measures occurred forty miles offshore, largely out of public view. What was visible was a national organization that was still figuring out how to structure itself. Boom that Houma had ordered quickly accumulated at large staging areas, and more than two hundred thousand feet of it was deployed by responders in small boats. Still, politicians across the Gulf were scrambling for boom of their own, and some complained to the media that they weren’t getting enough of it. Allen told me that “the amount of boom sent to various states was almost a political litmus test on federal support.” Inside the Unified Command, this phenomenon became known as the Boom Wars.

When the President arrived in Venice, Nungesser was among the people he met with. “He introduced himself,” Nungesser told me. “He said, ‘What’s going on? What do we got to get done?’ ”
Nungesser explained that he wanted BP to pay for three jack-up boats—barges that can be cranked up on tall pylons and suspended in the air—so that members of his strike force could clean up oil and deploy boom around the clock. “The President said to Allen, ‘Commander, what’s wrong with the plan?’ ” Nungesser told me. Allen looked to a local Coast Guard officer for an explanation. “We deploy from Venice every day and we don’t think it’s necessary,” the officer said, adding that the boats were expensive, and would have no real operational impact. But Nungesser reiterated his case, and Obama told Allen, “I want to get Billy’s jack-up boats out there.” The boats were hired the next day, and Obama called Nungesser to insure that it had happened.
In Venice, Stanton spoke about what might happen once the oil made landfall. “It’s going to be very ugly,” he predicted.
“You’re a pretty gloomy guy,” Obama said.
“Yes, sir,” he said. “They call me Captain Eeyore.”
Stanton explained some of the measures that Houma intended to take: dispersants, skimming, and the use of controlled burns in the marsh—an idea that Jindal dismissed as crazy. By then, the Governor had sidelined the state agency responsible for oil spills and begun to manage Louisiana’s response with his closest staffers. Frustrated with the Coast Guard’s allocation of resources, and convinced that the pace at Houma was “lackadaisical,” he teamed up with the parishes and created his own booming plan. Like Nungesser, Jindal was determined not to let oil enter the Mississippi Delta. His plan for Louisiana called for five million feet of containment boom, and an aide told Stanton that the state wanted it within a week. “The number was just astonishing to me,” Stanton recalled. “When I got back from that meeting, I remember very clearly telling BP, ‘You have got to provide this boom.’ I said, ‘You need to begin ramping up your shoreline strategy. Whatever you think you need, I need you to multiply it times three.’ It got to the point where we had exhausted every single boom source in the continental United States.”
Eventually, three hundred thousand feet of boom were being made for the response every week, and more was shipped in from fourteen countries. “We had to work at these end-of-the-road communities where there is not enough dirt to hold millions of feet of boom,” Jim Black, a BP manager who served as Houma’s operations chief, told me. “They didn’t have infrastructure—hotels in the range of a few hundred rooms. And yet it is also their community. We are the interlopers responding to our emergency in their back yards.”
Still, complaints about the distribution of boom persisted. Garret Graves, Louisiana’s head of coastal restoration, told me that Jindal deployed National Guardsmen to track boom from one staging area to another. “We never could figure out where it went. We don’t know if it went to the Bermuda Triangle, or what,” he said. “There was this mystery five miles of high-seas boom floating around. A month later, we found it was still in a staging area.”
In late May, the state decided to demonstrate some of these issues to Stanton by flying him over areas that needed boom, and staging areas where it sat, apparently unused. “We said, ‘Let’s get him out here,’ ” Graves told me. “He came back, and blood vessels were popping out of his neck and head. He was yelling on the phone.” Stanton by then had grown frustrated with the Unified Command, an officer told me; he wanted it to think bigger. Shortly after he arrived at Houma, he had asked for six thousand National Guardsmen, to be deployed throughout the coast, but was denied. (The guardsmen had just returned from overseas, and Allen had agreed not to deploy them unless it was absolutely necessary. Eventually, eleven hundred soldiers assisted the response in Louisiana.)
Following his flight with the Governor, Stanton held a press conference at a staging area. “I’m gonna go right back to tell BP to hire more boats, hire more people, get more boom, and put it out,” he said, and conceded, “We did have a problem of getting boom down here to begin with. It’s my job to direct this response in Louisiana, absolutely.”
A reporter asked why more boom had not already been brought in.
Stanton looked exhausted. By then, the response had deployed more equipment than had been used for the Exxon Valdez. “Well, the ‘why’—is that really important?” he said.
“Yes, sir,” the reporter said.
“All right,” Stanton said. “Well, I guess I am just slow and dumb.”
The next day, Stanton was relieved as Incident Commander. “The training for Coast Guard public affairs has to start including political acumen,” a public-affairs officer assigned to the response from Washington told me. But many responders were sympathetic. “Ed Stanton is a very practical man,” a Coast Guard officer told me. “But how do you deal with a very impractical community?”
Stanton was replaced by a friend and protégé, Roger Laferriere, the captain of the Port of Los Angeles. Laferriere, who is forty-eight years old, and has brown eyes and close-cropped hair, is one of the Coast Guard’s leading experts on oil-pollution response. When he arrived in Louisiana, he went straight to Houma. “I said to Ed Levine, ‘I need to go out there and look at the source,’ ” he told me. “It was surreal. The oil that was out there went for miles and miles.”
Laferriere spoke urgently about the oil, sometimes referring to it as a sentient enemy, which he called Grendel. He regarded spill response as a kind of military campaign, with hostile popular sentiment a constant concern. “When you win any war, you need to integrate the locals,” he told me. “So one of the things that I set out to do is figure out where that disconnect is between us and the locals, and see how we could mend it.” He brought to Houma a staff of officers to manage operations while he met with politicians and community members, and carried a “hot folder” containing urgent requests from people he met. He took Ed Owens and Ed Levine to town-hall meetings, hoping that they could speak convincingly about the environmental science. “We were conducting a major educational campaign in the middle of an operation,” he told me.
“I think Billy Nungesser really wanted to see an army of folks out there cleaning up the oil as soon as possible,” he added. “Our No. 1 goal isn’t necessarily rapid response. It is doing what is in the best interests of the environment. We would say, ‘O.K., Billy, when this oil comes to shore, we need to take a look at it.’ What’s there? Are there birds there? Are there fish? And sometimes, believe it or not, leaving it alone is the best option.” After the Amoco Cadiz spill, some marshes were so damaged by the cleanup that, a decade later, as much as forty per cent of the vegetation had not recovered. Still, Laferriere said, “The people of Louisiana are extremely passionate about their marsh, and they viewed the oil almost as nuclear waste: ‘We want it picked up and removed now!’ ”
Laferriere learned that the local strike teams were laying hundreds of thousands of feet of boom, in addition to the work being done from Houma. In some cases, they were attempting to lay down boom in double layers; in others, their boom trapped oil in the marsh, rather than keeping it out. Levine told me, “You could throw out marshmallows and it would be as effective.” So Laferriere campaigned to explain that there was a science to boom deployment—if done wrong, it could cause more harm than good, by crushing and killing grass, hastening erosion, or trampling oil into root systems. He also emphasized the need to hold boom in reserve. “I kept on telling people, ‘Remember your history in World War II? Remember the Maginot Line in France?’ ” he told me. “That failed miserably. The oil was not going to hit the coastline in a single massive wave. It comes as large ribbons, what we called ‘streamers,’ and, if we can get them before they come ashore, that’s what we wanted to do.”

By the end of May, the oil was surfacing above the wellhead in countless pieces, which moved unpredictably through the Gulf. “We were dealing with hundreds of thousands of patches of oil,” Admiral Allen told me. “We didn’t have a large, monolithic spill.” One long patch slid around Plaquemines Parish, but then suddenly retracted without really hitting the shore. Responders at Houma called it the Devil’s Tail. “The oil was very dynamic,” Laferriere recalled. “When you flew out to the source, what you saw was plumes—it was almost like a ballet of oil plumes coming up to the surface.” But, outside Houma, it was hard to convey this. Graphic imagery, produced by NOAA or BP and circulated on the news, gave an impression of a single sheath of crude covering the sea. “Computer graphics really gave a false image of the problem,” Ed Owens told me. “You may have oil on the water’s surface that’s ten-per-cent coverage in a square mile, yet on a map it’s all colored in.” Oil likes to spread—a drop of it can expand until it is one molecule thick. Sheen is thinner


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