CAN’T YA SMELL DAT SMELL? The Oil Spill in New Orleans - by Brian Boyles

oil11.JPG July 23rd was another historic day in New Orleans. At 3am, a barge driven by an unlicensed pilot collided with a tanker, spilling the barge’s load: over 400,000 gallons of oil. The spill was the largest on the Mississippi in ten years.

That morning’s newspaper reported that G.O.P. presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, had cancelled his visit with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a possible VP-pick.

Later that morning, President Bush promised to sign a housing bill that included $500 million in funding for low cost housing for the Gulf Coast.

And that same morning, the members of the National Conference of State Legislators awoke for the second day of their meeting in New Orleans. That morning and throughout a week filled with speeches by the likes of Mike Bloomberg and Ed Rendell, with parties at the D-Day Museum and bicycle rides through the city’s neighborhoods, the visitors from the nation’s state capitols were greeted by the scent of spilt oil.

I woke to that smell on Wednesday and continue to smell it when the wind blows or when I walk along the river. It burns your nose, a little like passing by a newly applied hot tar roof. I didn’t get a look at the water until Sunday, when swirls of oil were still visible on the surface of the muddy water. Booms and nets were set up to stop the slick from reaching the shore, but we know wildlife was affected and you can bet we’ll never get a straight answer on just how much oil reached the delta.

So how does it all add up? History, the sum record of fractured intentions and moments, will it tell much about this spill? About the various characters onshore who maneuvered through the landscape reeking—literally and spiritually—of wasted oil and opportunity? Well, let’s add up a few of the details beneath the above “major” events, as maybe, oh, I don’t know, we can get a sense of city and nation as they wobbly stood for a week.

Re: McCain: there’s a debate down here about the motivations for his cancellation, which was blamed officially on the minor hurricane in Texas. Speculation about Jindal’s chances continues, but the idea of a very, very young looking Indian-American with only 2 years experience in the House as a national resume and a decidedly weird Catholicism on his sleeve appears suspect to me. McCain and Jindal on TV is not a pretty sight to imagine.

Yet, what’s more striking about the timing is the possible response McCain might’ve offered to the spill. See, now that he’s latched on to the Drill Here movement, McCain will tell you that offshore drilling is safer than vitamins. After all, he’ll say, not a drop spilled during Hurricane Katrina. This is a boldfaced lie currently spreading into the debate over the oil crisis. When it reaches your shore, remember this: on land, approximately 8 million gallons of oil were spilled during the storm, from damaged pipelines, refineries and storage tanks. In the Gulf, some 741,000 gallons were lost. If you consider this a “safe” solution to the current crisis, you’re likely willing to believe that drilling anywhere will help you at the gas tank. And therefore you are very lost individual. One could say the same about McCain, but that he probably has the facts stored somewhere on the USS Straight Talk, along with his spine and a photo of GW handing him a birthday cake on August 29, 2005.

My point: these phony solutions for a very serious energy crisis are too weak to stand in the very place where that oil enters the bowels of the nation. In New Orleans, we can smell that bullshit.

Re: the Housing legislation: three days later, the Senate passed a version of the bill that included the $500 million for low-cost housing. However, instead of dedicating the funding to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the program has inexplicably become national, meaning that the money could be pulled by regions across the country. Nobody’s talking in the Senate, but it should be noted that this money’s original source was Freddie Mac & Fannie Mae profits.

Obviously those profits are gone; the bill is essentially a bailout of the mortgage giants. The economy is fucked all over, so the original sufferer is now but one in a crowd. Faulty levees and FEMA, subprime mortgages and loan sharks, what’s the difference? We’re all Americans and we’re all getting screwed, so goes the Wisdom. I’m all for affordable housing for every American, but here is another instance where the nation’s faltering leaves New Orleans at the back of the line, with no answers as to why or how long it must stand there, shivering in the stench of the oil and bullshit.

(It should be noted that the housing bill includes tax relief to Louisiana homeowners who suffered through the Road Home program, the bizarre effort managed by a very expensive, very inept private firm from North Carolina. That is another story, and you should really sit in a bar sometime and hear it.)

Re: the legislators: what do they have to do with it? They do the best they can from their roosts in Harrisburg or Sacramento. They slurp some drinks in the Quarter, listen to Big Ed, and deal with the cancellation of a riverboat cruise or two. They’re conventioneers.

I know. I just wonder what they think. I wonder if they go home and tell their office about the smell of New Orleans, about the way that place is really on a bad run of luck. I wonder if they wonder, about what will happen down here, about who exactly is in charge, and about why they—even as connected as they are—rarely get any news out of that place.

I would like to think that, as Republican and Democratic Party members, the state reps might suggest to their superiors a few words from the two candidates about the city and the Gulf Coast. I would like to think that I’ll turn on the television someday in the next 3 months and hear one of those two men dare to talk about us, the oil huffers downriver.

Because it seems weird to me, this silence. After all the talk 3 years ago, all the piling on that pushed Bush into permanent residence in the low approval ratings, why is this place not an issue in this race? It is an issue, you might say. After all, McCain has to avoid you people. Well, that’s true, but not much solace. And what about Obama? When is he coming for a visit? When will he smell the oil with us? What will he promise us? All the good people who rally behind him, why aren’t they demanding a few notes on Katrina, that racial and environmental and Republican-driven horror show the nation watched on CNN? Perhaps the backbeat funk of this oily city doesn’t fit in the harmonious chorus.

I am all for making history and the potential of a great change. But standing here amidst a decidedly less golden series of “our moments,” I’d like to know how much longer the people down here need to bear through the stink of history while listening to talk and doubletalk. We are left to draw our own conclusions, do our own math with these events that, pungent and minute as they are, add up to real history in this disfigured nation of ours.

You smell me?

Brian Boyles