In about 50 days, America will mark the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon blowout that unleashed the largest peacetime oil spill in history. BP will likely tell us that everything is fine now; they've clean everything up. But residents of the Gulf of Mexico offer a starkly different story, one of enduring damage, people wronged, and a region scarred.
Over the next 50 days, NRDC will run a blog series updating readers on the aftermath of the spill. Because make no mistake, life along the Gulf of Mexico has not returned to normal. The oil keeps rolling in with the tide, and the damage keeps undercutting people's lives.
The economic fallout alone continues to hammer local residents. Fishermen, restaurants, hotels, contractors, and shrimp wholesalers are struggling after months and months of absent tourists and tiny fish harvests.
Alabama's Gulf Coast beaches saw 1 million fewer visitors in 2010. Those who did venture to the beaches did so in part because hotels offered deep discounts in the wake of the spill, which means local businesses took a double hit from the disaster. State officials are trying to lure tourists back to their beaches, but they have set their sights low: They hope to recover just half of the lost visitors.
The spill has undermined much more than profit margins and business plans. It has endangered a way of life. So many people I talked to in the Gulf said living on the bayou is hard, but they stay because they love it -- in a fierce and abiding way. They love making a living from the sea, feeling the calm coming off the water, being surrounded by beauty, and doing what their families have done for generations.
The BP oil spill has put many of those traditions in jeopardy. Darla Rooks, a shrimper who has spent most of her life in the Gulf, said, "People have no idea that it's such a wonderful place... Now that the oil spill has hit, we can't do the things we used to do. I can't take my grandchildren out fishing, because I am scared that if they pull in a fish, if they grab it off the line, if it happens to have some dispersant in it, it might affect their skin. I don't want them eating the seafood right now until I know it is clear, for sure." (To hear Gulf residents share more stories about the spill, check out Stories from the Gulf: Living with the BP Oil Disaster, a project undertaken by StoryCorps, NRDC and Bridge the Gulf.)
Like many other Gulf residents, Rooks knows that marine life has not recovered from the spill. Karen Hopkins, who works at one of the largest shrimp buyers in Louisiana, says that during the winter, fishermen usually bring in about 200,000 to 300,000 pounds of a popular white shrimp called a sea bob. But they haven't brought in any this year.
Meanwhile, 28 baby dolphins have been found dead along the Mississippi and Alabama coast in the past two months. That's 10 times the average number of fatalities in the region. But it's not just the dolphins. Rosina Philippe, a member of the Atakapa Tribe said:
There are tremendous amounts of fish kills in some places, there are porpoises still dying being washed up on the beaches, star fish coming up from the bottom and their carcasses washing up on the beach, dying. That is telling me there is still something in the water that is killing the marine life.
Philippe is correct when she says there's something in the water: Scientists have confirmed that oil from the spill is stuck at the bottom of the sea floor and is devastating species there.
Decimated marine life, empty bank accounts, upended traditions. The Gulf is paying a steep price for America's oil addiction. Yet some lawmakers in Washington prefer to ignore these ongoing struggles. Now that oil prices are skyrocketing, some will call for pushing farther out into the deepwater, into ever-riskier conditions.
America doesn't have to choose between fueling our cars and preserving an ecosystem that sustains millions of people. As I explain in my book, In Deep Water: The Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf, and How to End our Oil Addiction, solutions exists that can help America break our addiction and move toward safer, cleaner, more sustainable sources of power and fuel.
Clean measures like these are the only way to ensure Gulf residents -- and indeed all Americans -- are protected from the sustained suffering brought on by another oil disaster.
This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.