Flight over the Deepwater Horizon well site Sunday, Jul 18 2010 

Yesterday when I woke up I felt a pop and then a sharp electrical shock down my right leg. Within an hour I could barely move. I’ve definitely pinched a nerve. Even today my toes on my right foot feel like they have pins and needles, and my calf muscles are clenched. Best remedy is rest, heat, ice and ibuprofen. Normally, that’s what I’d do too.

But then in the evening the Joint Information Center from the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command called and asked me if I wanted a flight out over the controlled burn site — ie the location where the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank. Despite knowing it would be a 3 hour drive roundtrip and likely to be pretty bouncy on the plane, I immediately said yes! How could I not?!!

Sadly, the weather was cloudy and hazy, and the trip was pretty bumpy in parts. So while the pictures aren’t the clearest it was still an amazing opportunity and it is worth the pain I am now enduring (and drug stores here don’t carry over the counter muscle relaxants…oh what I wouldn’t give for some Robax Platinum right now).

Despite that…there were some good pictures. I had been hoping to sell some to the Toronto Star but alas that was not to be. Hopefully there will be more opportunities in the next few weeks.

This is therefore a mostly a pictorial starting with the plane, wetlands, the site itself and some oil visible in the water. There is also a video of the back hatch opening which was very cool. There was one reporter who looked petrified especially when the back was open; I loved it and would have liked to go closer to the edge.

This is the plane we went up on – a Coast Guard C-144. It is pretty loud inside but they provided ear plugs.

Coast Guard plane C-144

The first thing I noticed was how the wetlands looked from the air. It was so clear how much destruction has occurred.  Every 34 minutes the equivalent of a football field of wetlands disappears in Louisiana. In these pictures note the straight lines that represent channels that have been cut through the wetlands for boats and/or pipes.

wetland images

wetland

The lighter green in this one is some form of algae.

green wetlands

Because this was a small and fairly casual flight I had the opportunity to go up to the cockpit.

Pilot

cockpit

Co-pilot

cockpit co pilot

All the thingamajigs

all the gadgets

Me on the plane!

Tanya on the plane

The opening of the hatch

An overview of the site…

response ships

The Helix is one of the production ships that would normally be siphoning oil.

Helix

The rig on the back far right is one of the relief wells being drilled.

relief well

Hazy, but these are the two relief wells…

relief wells

Here you can see streams of oily sheen on the water…the white streaks in the bottom right corner are scrapes on the window.

oil sheen

streams of oil

The circled area indicates a patch of thicker oil floating in the water.

red circle marks patch of oil

65ft update Tuesday, Jul 13 2010 

Further to my post about the Coast Guard imposed 65ft rule I learned late last night that they had lifted their ban for media coverage in and around boom.  The press release cited retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen (the go-to guy for the response) as saying “I have put out a direction that the press are to have clear, unfettered access to this event, with two exceptions: if there is a safety or security concern. This boom is critical to the defense of the marshes and the beaches.”

I applied this morning for my media credentials and was approved in less than 10 minutes. My pass outlines a list of regulations for myself, and any vessel operator to follow. It says in part “The US Coast Guard and Joint Information Center have approved your Media Vessel Credential. You are authorized to travel within the 20m boom safety zone for media activities. Please be aware that the area is an operational area and there may be many boats engaged in oil spill
recovery activities. This e-mail is the official media credential. There is no need to apply again as this credential is valid for the duration of the response.”

Next step is to call to see if I can get a spot on one of the overnight trips to the well site. If I get that, I also think I need to buy a new camera. And maybe a respirator 🙂

Disasters and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Monday, Jul 12 2010 

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) ” is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.”

This fall/winter I was diagnosed with vicarious or secondary PTSD. In this post I want to share a little about my experiences, as well as the broader implications of PTSD in a community following large-scale disasters.

PTSD is something that is quite common after a natural disaster but usually resolves (for the most part) within a few weeks or months. Primarily, that occurs because after the crisis, life returns to some semblance of normalcy. With Hurricane Katrina, the Earthquake in Haiti and now with the BP Oil Spill, normal no longer exists for many people.

Today is the six month anniversary of the earthquake, we’re a week away from the three-month anniversary of the oil spill, and just a little more than 6 weeks away from the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

I live in St. Bernard Parish (SBP), just a few blocks from where it meets the city of New Orleans at the Lower Ninth Ward. SBP or “da Parish” (as it is known, although all the areas around here are called parishes) and the Lower Ninth were two of the hardest hit areas.

In 2007, two years post-Katrina, Jerry St. Pierre (then President of the Central Association of Obstetricians Gynecologists)  said “Katrina has assaulted all the senses, and it is not over yet. This was not an acute injury, it is long-term. It is not a post traumatic stress disorder because we are still living it daily. One has the feeling that New Orleans is on life support and is struggling to survive.” These words really resonate for me. La Pierre stated them three years ago, August 29th will be the 5th anniversary of Katrina and yet, the city continues to suffer Katrina-related PTSD. Now with the oil spill, it can only get worse.

I recently wrote a chapter for an upcoming textbook and said “The mere experience of living amongst abandoned houses, or seeing the remaining signs of the disaster – destroyed properties, lack of trees, search marks on buildings – creates a constant reminder of the tragedy and loss.”  If this is true for me, a resident only for a few months, it must be remarkably so for those who have been here since before the storm.

An empty lot, Lower Ninth Ward

This picture is a typical sight in this area. Empty lots, with just steps or broken concrete in front, are everywhere, especially in Orleans Parish. In St. Bernard blight removal funding has allowed the parish government to start removing the concrete slabs and steps, leaving grass. Quickly the dirt becomes covered with grass and plants. The memory of what was quickly disappears.

While I hadn’t directly experienced Hurricane Katrina I had fallen in love with New Orleans on my first visit. In the fall 2009, as I began my PhD work, I spent all my school time studying issues of post-Katrina recovery. Primarily I was studying the emotional, cultural, social and psychological impacts of Katrina on the residents. It wasn’t unusual for me to spend 40, 50, 60 hours a week immersed in readings about this. When I had extra time, I was studying disaster impacts more generally. And when it came time for more casual reading I was reading books (fiction or non) about New Orleans. It was basically all I did. 100 hours on Katrina, disasters and recovery. Every week, for months.

I began realizing that I was experiencing trauma. I was more emotional, disconnected, stressed. But it was pretty manageable. I joked about it. I have spent more than a dozen years working with homeless people, sex workers, psych survivors etc. I am familiar with vicarious trauma and figured I could manage it on my own.

Until the earthquake in Haiti hit. All my symptoms came to the fore. I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t sleep. My anxiety was high. My appetite was off. I couldn’t focus on school work. I cried all the time. I watched the news because if I didn’t I got upset but when I did watch it I cried more. All typical PTSD symptoms.

I tried to manage it and couldn’t so I sought help with a therapist. We discussed coping strategies and I began to feel better. In talking to him I realized that my symptoms were less obvious, less intense, when I was actually in New Orleans. Each time I visited my stress decreased; when I was in Canada it increased.  As I talked to my therapist I realized that when I was there I was able to see the recovery taking place. When I was not there and just reading about it the research tended to be focussed on the negative and less on the progress and recovery so that was less visible.

I had hoped that my move to the area would help make things better. I’d be able to see  the changes and improvements. I would absorb the spirit of the people. I left for New Orleans on April 25th. On April 20th the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill had happened but at first the impact wasn’t reported as being as significant as we now know it is. Today, day 84 of the spill and BP finally believes it is contained. Testing will further determine this tomorrow.

But it is too little too late. The lower parishes, including the lower part of my own parish, have been severely impacted by  the oil. Coastal communities from Texas to Florida have had oil wash ashore. Last week it came into New Orleans itself in Lake Ponchartrain.  The oil spill is going to have more of an impact than Katrina had and will be made even worse if any serious hurricanes hit the Gulf this summer.

The effect of the oil spill isn’t just this fishing and shrimping season. It isn’t just this season of lost employment. It is a complete change in people’s way of life. This is going to change how people live. In fact today I saw a video (included below) where a reporter predicts a mandatory evacuation will occur within a week. I don’t know if I believe it will be that soon but I do believe there are communities – like Venice, and Grand Isle, where an evacuation is quite likely.

There is work being done to help people with the impact of the oil spill. I have volunteered a few times with Catholic Charities at food pantry/financial assistance programs. My lovely pal Joycelyn (Happy Birthday today darl btw) Heintz was featured in an article in the New York Times yesterday looking at mental aspects of the oil spill. She works as the coordinator at the Center for Wellness and Mental Health with the St. Bernard Project, the organization my students primarily worked with  this summer. Joycelyn was also the 100th home finished by the project – they have now finished 280 and have 50 under construction.  The St.Bernard Project has been a leader in rebuilding and providing mental health support to the local community, now they’re working on employment opportunities for vets and unemployed residents, as well as providing support to fishing families affected by the oil spill.

I’ve realized in the past few weeks that my PTSD isn’t as in control as it was in April before I left. But I hope that being here allows me to manage it better than I might have been able to do in Canada. Being able to volunteer will hopefully help me feel like I am contributing towards change. We’ll see. I do know I’ll feel a lot better if the cap holds up to testing tomorrow.

RIP Tyler Thursday, Jul 8 2010 

RIP Tyler Donald Gulliver

April 30th 1972 – July 8th 1995

Father, brother, son. Gone but not forgotten

Today is the 15th anniversary of my brother’s murder.

The tattoo I had done on the 13th anniversary.

It’s unrelated to normal topics on my blog, but at the same time, I find that he is increasingly on my mind here. I think Tyler would have liked New Orleans; a predominately black city with lots of hot grls and drinking on the streets. He probably would have been a hit.  On Facebook today a few of my friends commented about his smile and his devilish appeal; such a charmer.

His eldest daughter, Tiffany, has a picture of him tattooed on her back. You can see a hint of that charm in his grin.

Tiffany’s tattoo of her dad.

I think that my memories of him are stronger here for a few reasons. One is timing; the 15th anniversary today and his 18 year old daughter about to give birth to his grandchild next month. His kids have grown up without him, and now his grandkids will never know him.

Certainly race is another one of the reasons he is on my mind. Tyler’s killing was race-related, and so many of the issues tied into day-to-day existence here including crime, but also post-Katrina recovery, are intricately linked with racism, and racial discrimination.

I find that there is a new group of people here that I coined “wuppies” yesterday when thinking about them. Kind of like yuppies but all white. It’s that group of white folks who have come to “save New Orleans”, to make it better, to change it, to help it recover. There are many good-intentioned people who have come since the storm; actually, probably all of them (all of us because I fit in there) have good intentions, but the techniques vary. It’s actually something I am contemplating studying; how have the changing demographics of New Orleans affected the very nature of the city.

But the ones that I think of as wuppies don’t have an understanding of race and class, or if they do, it’s not a critical understanding. Rather, it’s  “I know what New Orleans needs and I will fix it my way” as opposed to, “I’m here to help, tell me what to do.” I hope that I fit into the latter category, I want to work with residents in the ways that they identify as being important.  The wuppies, through their lack of race & race conciousness, are engaging in various forms of classism and racism.

I think distance from family is another reason for thinking about Ty. Some of that distance occurred at home too.  In the world of dysfunctional families, it also happens to be 5 years since I talked to my brother Trevor; I called him on the 10th anniversary to make sure he called our parents since it was such a significant date. We have become Facebook friends since then, but we don’t talk; we’re merely linked to each other’s profiles.

But I am quite close with my sister Tara, and her kids, Aisha and Talik. I try to see them at least monthly, and sometimes more. I see my parents on a regular basis, and see Tiff and Tash (Tyler’s kids) as much as is possible; the grls and I stay in touch online at least. The geographic distance is challenging; I know only a few people here. At home I had a circle of friends, who, even if I wasn’t in regular contact with them, I knew would do whatever they could to help if I needed support.

When we were little (front to back – Tara, Trevor, Tyler and me).

I went looking back at my old livejournal posts and found one I wrote on the 10th anniversary. I actually remember writing it and how I was feeling at the time; how can it be that another five years have passed?

Details of the murder seem to be easy to say.  I suppose they are kind of shocking and graphic for those who haven’t heard it before,  I’ve told the story so many times before that it is as if I  distanced myself to tell it. I was telling some new friends about it  the other day, and I could hear myself saying it almost flatly. If I tell it as I feel it then the hurt and pain is much more present.
July 8th 1995. I received a call from my sister just before 7pm telling me my baby brother had been murdered. My parents, in a weird twist of fate, had come across the scene, found out it was him, and were at the police station within 20 minutes of him being killed, so we knew rather fast.

My dad dropped my brother off at this house on George Street in Peterborough in the morning. Tyler and the people in the apt spent the day drinking – mostly beer. No drugs were involved. Tyler and Billy Snape (the guy who ended up killing him) had been arguing and fighting all day. They were playing “I’m tougher than you” and “I did better/harder/more time than you”.  Stupid guy ex-con stuff.

My brother was adopted and was mixed race. At some point in the day Billy started saying “I don’t like niggers.” One of the grls who was there kept explaining “Tyler’s not a nigger, he’s just black” (which supposedly meant something in terms of behaviours). Billy and Tyler “took it outside” a couple of times but came back in acting like friends; until it started up again.

During the course of the day Billy ordered a bottle of bootleg whiskey. He started to drink it and got quite drunk. He had bought a new buck knife the day before and had been playing with it all day; opening and closing the blade, cleaning his nails etc.

Just after 6pm Billy was in the living room and looked up to see Tyler in the kitchen pouring a drink of the bootleg. He stood up and moved towards him saying “I don’t want no nigger drinking my whiskey”. He stabbed him once through the chest, Tyler bled out and died within a couple of minutes. Al MacKay (one of the guys whose house it was) pulled Billy off Ty and got stabbed in the lung (which deflated). Jeffrey Carondonna (another guy there) pulled Billy off Al and got stabbed in the hand as they rolled down the stairs.

Billy ended up getting charged with 1 count of 1st degree murder, and two counts of attempted. By the time of the December 1995 trial it had been reduced to one count of second degree. Jeffrey took off and was later charged with failing to appear as a witness. Al and his brother John seemed to develop amnesia and claimed not to remember anything. The grls that were there said they didn’t see anything. (the police version of events matches the street story we heard so we assume it’s quite accurate).

Billy pled guilty in Feb 96 to involuntary manslaughter and received a 5 year sentence. He served about 2 and was released. He died a couple of years ago in “mysterious” circumstances.

I’ve done a whole bunch of work around healing, grieving, forgiveness including some ritual stuff. I am off to a new friend’s place today to redo one of the rituals; it’s private so that’s as much as I can say about it but I am happy to have found someone here who can help me with it.

Trevor, Tyler, me, Tara, JJ (in front) and Scott (the latter two were neighbours as kids)


Two Weeks in New Orleans Wednesday, Jul 7 2010 


I collected a cup full of sand from Ship Island. Swimming in the gulf was both awesome and sad. Actually, I think that’s what the whole trip felt like, always there were mixed emotions. The occasion is happy, but so many things to be sad about. John from VAYLA said that the oil spill is like a car crash in slow motion. You see it and you know it’s going to happen and when it does it’ll be really bad, but you can’t do anything but wait. I am impatient and always feel like I should do something before something else happens. Like going to concerts. What if the musicians retire? What if they decide to never make music again? What if they drop dead? Who knows! But with New Orleans, this irrational fear that places just won’t be there anymore doesn’t seem so irrational anymore. Ship Island won’t be open next year to public. Neither are the swamps, marsh and wetlands. Things feel more real and even more scary when you have been to the places.

After coming back, I compiled all the photos I took from the trip and made it into videos. Having two little sisters mean that a lot of the compilation was done during the night, but that was okay. It was nice to be able to sit down and really look at the photos I took. Some made me laugh, some made me sad. Some made me think a lot about some things. The video is in five parts. The third one was used for the presentation to raise awareness.

Thanks again to Pascal and Tanya for organizing and being our drivers for two weeks. I miss you NOLA group two, and I hope to be able to travel to NOLA again next summer with y’all. 🙂

Jennii

West Ship Island, MS Tuesday, Jul 6 2010 

In May, Pascal and I took the second group of NOLA students to Mississippi to go to West Ship Island.

They had only opened the week before for the season and had already had tar balls and dead animals wash up. Tar balls have continued for some time, and on Thursday July 1st they had oil wash up. The information update says in part…”As of July 1st weathered oil has washed ashore on Ship Island…Beaches within Gulf Islands National Seashore, including West Ship Island, have been affected by the oil spill and oil is on the beaches and maybe in the water adjacent to beach areas.”

We took the students there so they could enjoy one of the most beautiful natural barrier islands in the Gulf. So fragile that they ask you to pack on/pack off your garbage, and to not pick any grass or flowers since they hold the island together.

Here are a few more photos of a once beautiful island..hopefully it can be that way again.

65 ft rule Friday, Jul 2 2010 

Wow. The Coast Guard has just implemented a new rule stating that no one – whether members of the public or media – can get within 65ft of oiled wildlife, boom, response vessels etc.

When I went to Grand Isle a few weeks ago we stayed far away from boats in the water because we didn’t want to distub any work that they were doing.

We did however get pretty close to the boom itself; while the others had fancy cameras I have a cheap little Fuji and the zoom is adequate but not impressive. Which of the following two pictures provides you with better information?

This…(a zoomed in picture from 20 ft away)

…or this, a picture right near the boom?

Now, I can’t afford a $40000 fine or to get charged with a Class D felony, so I’m obviously going to have to respect this regulation as much as possible. But, until someone offers to pay me to write about the oil spill, I’m a freelance writer without a job, and as far as the Coast Guard or BP or anyone else is considered I’m the same as Jane Public.

However, members of the media are a critical component of enabling the public to know what is going on. While I respect the need for safety and security – for the boom not to get tangled or run over, for the wildlife not to be injured, for response vessels not to risk collision or waves from other boats – there is a limit to this.  The Coast Guard actually wanted to impose a 300 ft limit but that was dropped to 65ft. Already media can’t fly lower than 3000 ft over the oil spill without special permission from the FAA. Now getting close to oil on the ground or in the water requires the Coast Guard’s permission.

Associated Press photographer Gerald Hebert says “”Often the general guise of ‘safety’ is used as a blanket excuse to limit the media’s access, and it’s been done before…It feels as though news reporting is being criminalized under thinly veiled excuses. The total effect of all these restrictions is harming the public’s right to know.”

Anderson Cooper, CNN‘s guy on the ground here, did a wonderful rant on this which includes the following:

“We’re not the enemy here. Those of us down here trying to accurately show what’s happening, we are not the enemy. I have not heard about any journalists who has disrupted relief efforts. No journalist wants to be seen as having slowed down the cleanup or made things worse.

If a Coast Guard official asked me to move, I would move. But to create a blanket rule that everyone has to stay beyond 65 feet away boom and boats, that doesn’t sound like transparency. Frankly, it’s a lot like in Katrina when they tried to make it impossible to see recovery efforts of people who died in their homes.

If we can’t show what’s happening, warts and all, no one will see what’s happening. And that makes it very easy to hide failure and hide incompetence, and makes it very hard to highlight the hard work of cleanup crews and the Coast Guard. We are not the enemy here.”

You can view this video to put the above into context. I might have to go watch him broadcast soon, just to tell him how great this was.

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