Mike Kilian: Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a story that hits home
America is a land of many wonders, and every corner of it is worthy of exploration.
Drop down into the northern tip of New Hampshire from Quebec, and before long you’ll be pulled over taking photos of moose.
Head up into the Sierra Nevada in late winter, and marvel at snow piled 6-feet high or more along the side of the interstate.
Drive outside of Tucson, and you are soon surrounded by a forest of Saguaro cactus.
And wade into the Gulf of Mexico, and quickly discover it is teeming with life as tiny fish bump against your feet and the jellyfish start to sting.
It is the Gulf that is on everyone’s minds these days, of course, thanks to an environmental tragedy and news story of such scope that even little kids are aware of it. I’ve shared with the children the www.nytimes.com map that shows the daily expansion and movement of the oil’s presence in the Gulf. The slick hasn’t yet made it as far east as Panama City Beach, Fla., where we stayed in an ocean-front condo last Columbus Day weekend, but it would seem to be only a matter of time unless the mile-deep “hole in the ground” can be fixed soon.
Whether you consider yourself an environmentalist or not, it is immensely saddening to see such a lovely ecosystem and such a unique way of life damaged by the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and subsequent underwater oil leak. And that’s especially true for those of us who have spent time in that region.
Panama City Beach is a spring break hot spot in March, full of gaudy attractions. The pace is much more sedate the rest of the year, and the rhythms in the condo complex we stayed in were very much tied to the sun and the tides.
During the day, we’d hit the beach, learning the intricacies of the Gulf’s color-coded flag system indicating the safety, or lack of safety, of entering the bath-tub-temperature waters. We even experienced one dreaded double-red flag day, which meant no swimming at all because of rip currents. It being autumn, the sun would start sinking into the Gulf toward 5 p.m., creating shades of color in the sea and sky that kept cameras clicking. At night, the kids would scamper after crabs along the shoreline.
One afternoon, we visited the lovely St. Andrews State Park, which included a shallow inlet filled with sealife, including a horseshoe crab. The kids explored for hours; it felt like the mother of all school field trips.
We drove west one day along the Panhandle, sticking mostly to the highway close to the beach. For every high-rise-filled resort community, there were many, many miles of quiet beachfront. We crossed Pensacola Bay on one long bridge, and later crossed Mobile Bay on an even longer bridge. It is hard to describe just how much water pours into Mobile Bay, or just how immense it really is. But it’s quite a sight.
We made our way to the southeastern corner of Mississippi, which put us roughly due south of Chicago. Here, there were dozens of billboards, all in a row, for the same casino, since the south coast of Mississippi is lined with gambling opportunities. We didn’t have time to make it to New Orleans; that will have to wait for another trip. But we’d seen a lot of the Gulf: Tourism, fishing, ports, commerce. And we took away a sense of a distinct culture, or sets of cultures, in this lovely part of the country whose fortunes are so tied to the water. Films such as “Forrest Gump” with Gary Sinise roaring at the elements on a storm-rocked shrimp boat can give you a flavor, but nothing beats seeing the Gulf first-hand.
Now, that region is in crisis, one caused not by a natural event such as a hurricane but by the limits of human endeavor. As a journalist, I think of all those reporters working across four states to cover this immense story. There have been many long days of reporting and shooting and editing work to feed the nation’s and the world’s interests in what’s occurring. And there will be many more.
There are so many story angles to cover. It’s about the environment. It’s about business. It’s about people losing their livelihoods. It’s about technology. It’s about politics. It’s about government regulation. It’s about energy policy. And, most of all right now, it’s about problem-solving (c’mon, admit it: You’ve had at least one conversation around the dinner table about ways they might plug that leak.).
I think of the sea creatures we encountered last fall and the people we met and the places we saw, and I feel great sorrow. But nature and people often prove to be resilient, and we can only pray that will be the case in the Gulf.
Mike Kilian is the Observer-Dispatch's senior editor/content. Call him at 315-792-5008 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.