Windows of reprieve are secured in 72 hour increments. 72 hours is the maximum length of time the oil spill trajectory map predictions allow.
Residents of the Gulf Coast are living our lives three days at a time.
It is exhausting.
We have said our goodbyes to coastal life as we know it. Most of us did so the weekend of May 1st, when we initially believed the oil would make first landfall. Scores of crawfish boils, indulgent with local shrimp and crab and oysters, flavored the air all along Mississippi’s 26 miles of continuous sand beach, one of the world’s longest man-made sand beaches.
Bet you didn’t know that about us. You can drive east from Bay St. Louis to Ocean Springs and never lose sight of the water, rarely finding a building between you and the shore.
During the first couple of weeks after the Deepwater Horizon sank and the oil plume began its hemorrhage, I would drive along the beach and watch solitary figures dot the shore every few hundred yards. Before the oil began its creep, you could drive a mile or more on an average day before seeing someone standing on the beach. We took its certainty in our lives for granted.
Once the 72 hour windows began opening and closing, that changed.
They would just stand there. A man, in khaki pants and dress shirt, standing still at the water’s edge, looking out toward the horizon. A woman, excited dog leashed at her side, standing with skirt whipping around her legs as she watched the slow rolling of the waves. An elderly woman, stance of a local, hands on her hips, face set in reprimand as she faced down the water from her daily vantage point on the beach-long sidewalk.
The residents of the Gulf Coast made their way down to the water’s edge, not to look for signs of oil, but to take in one last deep breath of life as we know it.
We paid our respects.
But just like a stubborn old great-aunt that somehow finds the strength to hold on one more day, despite the fact that you’ve said your tearful goodbyes and have a plane ticket ready to whisk you back home in two days’ time, back to your everyday responsibilities and expectations, our Gulf Coast refuses to die quietly.
Said with humor as rich as mud in the bayou, mind you, I have to admit this persistent survival is becoming an inconvenience.
The oil has yet to arrive. The beach remains the same, save for a few random tar balls and broken booms here and there. No warning whiffs of crude in the air. No silhouettes of dolphins slumped on the beach just ahead.
Hell, the shrimp are still safe to eat, as long as you fish within the barrier islands that dot our coastline just offshore.
We’re used to this Hurry up and wait for the end of the world as you know it! atmosphere. Tropical depressions become tropical storms, meander into the Gulf of Mexico, and then churn about a bit in the warm waters and threaten to pinball anywhere between Texas and Florida as a full blown hurricane, giving us in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama plenty of time to promptly get worried, shrug it off, work up a panic, exhale in relief, and then do a double take as we pass by a television that, swear to God, sounded like it just said we might take a direct hit after all.
All this time we’re supposed to have every stitch of significance packed in waterproof containers and loaded into the backs of our cars. Take one last look at your house and… wait… maybe we don’t need to evacuate after all?
“Before the oil comes…” has become an afterthought we would be foolhardy to forget to pay heed. Summer break begins for our schools next week so I asked our boys what they would like to do to celebrate. Maybe spend that first Monday on the beach?
Cheers of “Yes! We can take snacks!” radiate from the backseat as we all glance over to the beach on our daily drive along Highway 90, Beach Boulevard. “Don’t forget the umbrella for the baby, Mom. She’s never been on the beach! Ooh, let’s make sandcastles!”
Then a beat. Then, “… yeah, before the oil comes.”
Our sons are five and three. The baby is seven months old.
Before the oil comes, I want them to enjoy the beach as much as they can. Before the oil comes, my husband is taking them fishing and cast netting at every opportunity.
An ominous marker standing between us and our tomorrow, as seen from a distance of 72 hours. We hope that our lives won’t be marked by “before the oil” and “after the oil.” We already have one of those markers and, Mother of Pearl, it’s obnoxious.
We know the oil is still there, but we can’t help but continue hoping that it won’t be as bad as they say it will. We keep hoping that the dead dolphins washing up on the barrier islands are unrelated. That the tar balls might be the worst of it.
They tell us that chopped up tires and golf balls might save us and we try to believe them. We put our faith in booms made of hair-stuffed pantyhose. We pay no mind to the broken yellow booms slumping impotent on our beach. We’re sure they’ll fix that.
We plan one last crawfish boil. Again.
This is what it is like along the Gulf Coast before the oil comes.