LSS: Up close and personal with the oil spill

Back in college, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening conjured a vivid picture of Grand Isle for me. Other than the imagery, the required reading during my first semester away at university was way too much for me to wrap my head around.

Since then, visiting Grand Isle has been on my to-do list.

After the April BP oil blowout and subsequent disaster, images of Grand Isle did not resemble the ones Chopin’s landmark novel created, but I wanted to see for myself.

So, last week, my daughters and I drove down to Grand Isle with Stacey Scarce, a Lafayette-based naturalist.

Once on La. 1 and headed south, we were immersed in quintessential Louisiana. Kate Chopin would have been proud.

As we crossed the giant bridge to Grand Isle, Scarce explained how much of the water and marsh we saw used to be land. The sight was a visible wake-up call for the loss of land along the Louisiana coastline.

On Grand Isle, homemade signs made an impact. “Welcome to Grand Oil, home of the World’s Largest oil spill,” one read. SpongeBob Squarepants inspired another series of five signs, with sentiments like, “Small people matter too,” and “(Don’t) Wish you were here.”

A few hundred yards down the road from the SpongeBob signs, we stopped at a piece of weathered plywood, with the words “Beach Closed” in black spray paint. A man stood under a small, portable sun shelter, guarding the beach entrance. He explained that the beach, known as Zone 3, was actually open – even though the sign said otherwise. He said he expected Zone 4 to open soon. Workers were cleaning the beach starting closest to bridge connecting the island to the mainland (from west to east). Looking eastward, we could see clusters of workers shoveling sand into piles. From the piles, the sand would go into a cleaning mechanism and then placed back on the beach. On the open part of the beach, there was one guy walking.

The empty beach was an eerie sight. I asked the guard if he would get in the water. He said that even if oil wasn’t a factor, he had seen several shark attacks on dolphins within 20 feet of the shore in recent days – and that was enough to deter him. Scarce said there was a high chance of connecting the shark attacks with the oil spill since the shark attacks are a recent occurrence.

“There are a lot of animals that have been pushed closer to the shore. Nobody can say for sure,” she said. “Since it’s never happened before, it’s suspicious.”

As we walked along the open beach, tar balls were easy to spot.

In Grand Isle State Park at the end of the island, we walked along the raised platform over the closed beach. Scarce said she was distressed not to see such nearly as many birds as she was hoping to see.

All in all, the day left me feeling much like I felt after reading The Awakening. The scenes, the people, the potential impact of the spill for all of us – and especially for Grand Isle, were just too much to wrap my head around.

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