06/25/2010 08:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

'We Beat the Oil on Race Day': Resilience in Mobile, Alabama

Hurricane Katrina created a sense of both self-sufficiency and skepticism in Mobile, Alabama that still exists today. Down on this coast, locals hesitate to believe that any support from either the government or BP is on its way. Tammy Herrington of Mobile Baykeeper cherishes the waterways along this coast. We met her in the Gulf, where she expressed her fear of the unknown chemical make-up of the dispersants and looming reality that hurricane season was approaching. Today, Tammy shudders at the thought of the more than 1.3 million gallons of toxic dispersants that have already been dropped in the Gulf amidst the realization that hurricane season has arrived.

In our latest Letters from the Field posting, Tammy writes of the dread facing her community.

We along the Gulf Coast are experts at waiting for a hurricane. However, unlike a hurricane, this gulf disaster has been a slow excruciating onslaught which feels more like an invasion than a storm. There is no end so far to this invasion, nor do we yet comprehend the extent of the damage it will cause to this area we love.

She shares her heartache about the possibility that her daughters have enjoyed the beauty of the Gulf for the last time.

My daughters are nine and eleven, and we spent our Spring Break this year traveling the coast of Florida and Alabama all the way from Wakulla Springs back to Dauphin Island. At the end of a beautiful week of family time, scenic vistas and a great bounty from our local waterways, we vowed to spend more time on the water this year. Little did we know what was about to unfold. On the day that oil washed into Dauphin Island, my daughter's best friend stood in the Gulf with tears streaming down her face. Explaining to my children and others how this has happened and answering questions on how long it will take to restore our home has been one of the most challenging things I have had to face.

Sadly, Tammy faces challenges beyond her local estuaries and speaks of the bureaucratic hurdles they are being forced to jump through. Her anger builds as she witnesses the ocean's delicate ecosystem being destroyed against the backdrop of BP's insufficient reaction to the damage on the shores and in the water.

Each week brings a new challenge for our area. Recently we began receiving reports that local property owners were being told by contractors that they were responsible for cleanup of their own property -- that BP was only cleaning up public lands. We fought for these property owners by going to Unified Command to ask for help in how to address this problem and also by going before Secretary of Commerce, Gary Locke when he visited Mobile...Our goal to prevent the oil from reaching the shore altogether is challenged by use of dispersants which drop the oil throughout the entire water column, making the boom useless as a last line of resort to protect our shores. We are now watching large deep water fish and sharks coming into the shallow waters closer to shore in an attempt to flee the oil deep within the Gulf of Mexico...

When we met Tammy last month, she was steely and determined to protect the coastline's most vulnerable areas. Today, despite the parade of bad news from BP and the threat of water contamination in Mobile Bay at any time, the Baykeepers have not lost their steady resolve. In proud defiance of the impending reality of contaminated waterways, and with determination to continue to provide the best aid possible, they held their annual triathlon fundraiser -- a fundraiser, more important now, than ever.

The Friday before the event, one of our Field observers called with a report that she thought she had found oil in Mobile Bay, close to the area where the swim would occur. There was also the strong odor of oil in the air, and we called in the EPA to test the air quality to ensure the safety of the racers. We called officials from every state agency charged with protecting our health, to get water quality testing results and to ask for advice on how to proceed. When all of the tests came back fine we sent out the Mobile Baykeeper boat to check out the water south of us to make sure we were safe to proceed. The morning of the race, when the gun went off and swimmers began to pour into Mobile Bay, it felt like a victory. We know it may be our last race for quite some time where it is safe to swim in the bay we know and love, but this year we celebrated as we beat the oil on race day. We all hope we can beat it in the end.

Tammy writes, "Mobile Baykeeper's message for years has been that you can't have a healthy economy without a healthy environment; that the two go hand in hand." The evidence is mounting now in the Gulf that a fossil-fuel based economy is unhealthful for us, the environment and our future. Stories like Tammy's are vivid reminders that now is the time to shift to an economy reliant on clean, renewable energy, an economy that provides safe and sustainable jobs, respects our environment and all the life dependent upon it, and frees our kids from ever worrying about splashing around in ocean waves.

The 11th Hour Project supports this transition to a restorative economy. This series highlights the individual stories of struggle inherent in this journey.