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BEFORE AND AFTER: Meditations on the Gulf Oil Spill

Wednesday, 23. June 2010 19:33

I had lived in Miami for exactly 85 days when Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida. That’s not much time to commit a landscape to memory. It was my first hurricane. To this day, my friends from other parts of the country continue to tell me that I am mad to live here. They, of course, live in parts of the country where there are floods or tornadoes or earthquakes. I guess you pick your poison. But the things about Miami that I loved before the storm were still here after – many of them just weren’t in the right places: boats were in the streets, trees were on the ground, and people’s roofs were nowhere to be found. But the luminous quality of the light was unchanged, as was the impossibly blue color of the ocean not far from my apartment. And even though the multilayered canopy of trees and vines and plants in a multitude of greens was gone – ripped apart and decaying to a sodden muddy brown everywhere that you looked – the nocturnal sounds of insects and animals, sounds that I remembered from my childhood visits to family, still rang out in the dark, humid nights.

The day before Andrew, I remember packing up a few things and piling my cat into my Jeep as I evacuated my apartment eight blocks from the ocean and headed to the relative safety of a family member’s home on the mainland. A 16-foot storm surge had been predicted for my neighborhood; we could not stay, evacuation was mandatory. But I also remember driving down Ocean Drive for one more look before I left. One last look at the pastel colored deco hotels, lined up like so many petit fours next to the sand and the palm trees and the sea. I just sat by the side of the road and tried to commit it all to memory, because I knew that in a day, everything would be different. Even with only 85 days in Miami I knew that after that day, I would have a before and an after.

So how on earth can the folks in the Gulf cram a lifetime of memories into their heads while they wait for the inevitable? The fishermen and oystermen whose families have plied the Gulf waters for generations, the fish houses and packing plants, restaurants and motels that all depend on the the Gulf of Mexico for their livelihood – what will become of them? How do you find that spot where everything is stored for safekeeping? Is it even possible to capture the smells and tastes and sounds of a life in jeopardy? All of them are waiting, waiting and watching. Surely the bayous and back bays and seagrass beds and small town life that is the Gulf will survive. Maybe. Or maybe not. Sullied oyster beds and ruined beaches, oil encrusted birds and other wildlife may be their version of my stripped-to-the-bone South Florida landscape. Are those folks taking one last look? Are they allowing themselves a quick drive to a lighthouse or a fort or a favorite fishing area or beach one last time before the oil changes every part of their world into before and after?

Here in South Florida, before Hurricane Andrew, we all were mesmerized by a giant orange blob on our television screens – a blob that relentlessly plowed across the Atlantic Ocean and straight into our living rooms. But then it was gone. However, for the residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the panhandle of Florida, it isn’t one blob they are watching, but thousands. And they just keep coming with no end in sight.
How can we help, what can we do, when will it end? When will they get their “after”?

“The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and azur’d vault
Set roaring war.

- William, Shakespeare, The Tempest -

Note: I started to write this piece a few days after the spill when it seemed as if a quick solution would be forthcoming. But my mind was jumbled with unease and fear and sadness, and the piece went nowhere. About two weeks ago I took another look and refined the piece to what you just read. Although still numb, I retained some small measure of hope in regards to this horrific occurrence. Today, when I heard that one of BP’s robotic machines had jostled the cap on the pipe, forcing its removal, and that oil was once again flowing full force into the Gulf, I decided that there was nothing more that I could say. And, for now, that there is nothing else that I can do. June 23, 2010.

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