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  • The BP Oil Spill and the End of Empire, Louisiana
  • Andy Horowitz (bio)

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Calling this disaster “the BP oil spill” conditions an inquirer to look for damage caused specifically by oil, and to measure its duration by the length of time that oil was allowed to spill. But listening to the people closest to the Gulf, it becomes clear that as much as this experience has been defined by an acute, chemical event, it also has come to represent a chronic, cultural trauma. Memorial for “all that is lost,” Grand Isle, LA, 2010. Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of the author.

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Karen Hopkins lives in Grand Isle, Louisiana, where she manages Dean Blanchard Seafood, one of the largest seafood processors in the state. Before the BP oil spill of 2010, she recalled, “a typical day would be about five nervous breakdowns.” That is because Dean Blanchard typically bought between thirteen and fifteen million pounds of shrimp a year. For Hopkins, that meant:

You have three trans-vac suction machines working. You have three crews in three different staging areas unloading boats that are waiting in line, and you have three men coming in with shrimp tickets from three different boats at the same time, and you have people waiting in your office to get paid for their catch. The phones are ringing off the hook because you have fishermen who want pricing and . . . you have processors who are competing for your product and they’re trying to jack you out of some money because they’re trying to lower the price or they tell you that these shrimp weren’t pretty enough. You have to deal with them. And there’s only one of you.

Before the spill silenced the phones and emptied the office, turned off the suction machines and docked the boats, that was a typical day, and Karen Hopkins loved it.1

In the months after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, I conducted a series of interviews for the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina with people like Hopkins who live and work on the Louisiana coast. I asked them to describe their experiences during what President Barack Obama defined as “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.” That was more than four years ago. Now, most of the country has put behind them the grotesque images of oiled pelicans; the eighty-seven days the Macondo well spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf, the spectacle broadcast live from 5,000 feet underwater, have faded from memory. On Magazine Street in New Orleans, people are lining up at Casamento’s for a dozen Gulf oysters on the half shell once again. Though in April 2013, a team of biologists from Louisiana State University detected hydrocarbons in the cocahoe minnow—an appetizer for the Gulf of Mexico’s food chain—and in June 2013, researchers discovered a 40,000-pound mat of tar just off the Louisiana coast, our temptation is to declare the disaster over. Historians, ironically, tend to have particularly short attention spans when it comes to disasters, often treating them as acute events that erupt in a catastrophic instant and fade away just as quickly.2

Yet accounts from the Louisiana coast—a place where recent history is so saturated with calamities that USA Today described the people there, in a headline, as living “forever in recovery”—compel us to reconsider what kind of disaster the oil spill is, how long it might last, and what, ultimately, might be most disastrous about it. Calling this disaster “the BP oil spill” conditions an inquirer to look for [End Page 7] damage caused specifically by oil, and to measure its duration by the length of time that oil was allowed to spill. But listening to the people closest to the Gulf, it becomes clear that as much as this experience has been defined by an acute, chemical event, it also has come to represent a chronic, cultural trauma.3


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Grand Isle is a distinct place: “down...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 6-23
Launched on MUSE
2014-08-16
Open Access
No
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