September 2010

The Culture of Calamity

A view from over the shoulders of the press corps in a coast guard plane flying above the Gulf of Mexico

by Anne Gisleson
Illustrations by Tony Millionaire

Memorial Day, 2010

Some of the photographers in the press corps were starting to grumble. It was almost 9:30 in the morning and the light would be too flat by the time we made it out to the Gulf. In the lounge of Top Gun Aviation at the airfield in Hammond, Louisiana, about sixty miles north of New Orleans, we waited for the Coast Guard plane on leather chairs facing the runway, feet propped on matching leather ottomans. A freelance photographer from Alabama talked about what was going on in his state, efforts to protect Dauphin Island from the inevitable with a sand-berm barrier, something he said they try every year anyway to ward off erosion, and every year it gets washed away. We joked about how his governor had snatched up all of a certain type of polymer that turns oil into an easier-to-handle gelatinous solid, because he wanted to get it before the other governors did. Crises like this tend to turn Gulf Coast governors into squabbling siblings.

Coast Guard public-information liaison Larry Chambers, Petty Officer First Class, greeted us in a blue jumpsuit emblazoned with impressively wordy patches. The press corps, mostly in cargo pants, polo shirts, and baseball caps embroidered with their media affiliations, shuffled around in various attitudes of preparation, checking iPhones and gear in shoulder bags. When I mentioned to Chambers that I was a little concerned about the flight, since we’d driven through some storms coming in from New Orleans, he nodded and smiled sympathetically and then said, “You know, we’re the Coast Guard, we’re made for weather.”

Until he made that comment, I’d been kind of nervous about the flight but it reminded me that these were the guys and gals who’d rescued thousands of people after Katrina with such alacrity, dangling expertly from helicopters in the gusts of the rotors. Even though at the moment the Coast Guard command was being criticized for its response to the oil spill, for being too cozy with BP, after Katrina they had garnered a lot of well-deserved goodwill. Almost on cue, our transport arrived on the runway: a CASA HC-144A cargo plane, full-bellied with high wings, an upslanted rear, and enormous propellers. Crew technician Kevin Landry[1], an affable young man in glasses and an olive drab jumpsuit, passed around a cardboard box of earplugs and gave us terse, slightly weary instructions. “Stay out of the way of the propellers. When exiting the aircraft always turn left. Away from the propellers. And, please, listen to me. When I tell you to do something, just do it.” He opened the door of the air-conditioned lobby. The racket of those terrifying, man-size propellers had overtaken the tarmac, along with the rising end-of-May heat. Landry concluded, “And now please put in your earplugs.”

The inside of the cargo plane looked like a cargo plane, long seats along the gray quilted walls, orange nylon netting behind them, cave-dim with only four small windows—two in the front, two in the back—which were crowded with cameras for much of the flight. After an unceremonious, barely apprehended takeoff, people milled around the hold, taking out their earplugs to try to chat, jockeying around the windows, or asking Chambers questions. Some were just trying to catch up on sleep, as lord knows what time they had woken up or where they had driven from to make the plane. The engine’s clamor cultivated an air of both intimacy and isolation in the CASA—you either leaned in close to talk with the strangers around you or you stayed in your own buzzing head, fluorescent earplugs firmly in place.

After about half an hour in the air, I asked Chambers where we were, and he said we were headed south-southeast, about forty minutes from the site of the former Deepwater Horizon rig, where we would be able to see a lot of activity. That was news to me; I didn’t even know we were going down there, thought we were heading to the mouth of the Mississippi to Pass-a-Loutre, one of the areas where the oil had reached the wetlands, further blackening the edge of our collective despair.

I live and write and teach in New Orleans and wasn’t armed with journalistic objectivity or military directive. My friend Michel, an artist and photographer, had been working on a book about the wetlands for a few years now; I was writing an essay for it and had accompanied her on some of her shoots. After the BP blowout, the project, already a meditation on the loss of an essential and enigmatic landscape, took on an accelerated urgency. Since late April, Michel had been doggedly arranging boat trips and flights to document what was happening. And now here we were, headed to the actual source of the whole catastrophe, where apparently some bad decisions had been made, where eleven workers had died, where the region’s Battle for Our Future Part II erupted. Five years after Katrina, we believed we were on the brink of a new phase of the recovery, but suddenly we were thrown back into the culture of calamity. It was all so familiar—the four-pronged invasion of press, military, profiteers, and volunteers, and a brutal new vernacular, but instead of storm surges, gutting, and debris, we have blowouts, top kill, and junk shots.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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  1. His name has been changed.

Anne Gisleson teaches writing at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Her work has been included in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and The Best Music Writing, among other publications.

Illustrations by Tony Millionaire

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