Saturday, November 06, 2010

Mary Anna Evans - A Matter of Perspective:  A Novel-writing Engineer Takes a Look at the BP Oil Spill  - Part I

Donis here. I’m doing something a bit different this weekend, Dear Reader. My Sunday guest blogger, Mary Anna Evans, suffered a death in her family last week, and rather than h

ave her take the time to write a new entry for Type M, I asked her to send me something she had written or blogged about in the the past that she particularly liked. The following essay about the Gulf oil spill is so fascinating that rather than edit it in any way, I’m posting part of it today and the rest tomorrow. Enjoy!


Mary Anna Evans has degrees in physics and engineering, but her heart is in the past. Her series character, Faye Longchamp, lives the exciting life of an archaeologist, and Mary Anna envies her a little. Her latest book, Strangers, set in St. Augustine, Florida, has just been published by Poisoned Pen Press.

This is a post I wrote in June, after visiting the area south of New Orleans that was so affected by the BP oil spill. I think this is such an important event that I am setting my current work-in-progress, PLUNDER, in that area. We'll be seeing the fallout from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon for a long, long time. - Mary Anna.

Aerial images of oil covering the surface of waters that were once turquoise and clear.

Suffering turtles and water birds, thickly coated with petroleum.

Computer-generated maps purporting to tell us all how bad the situation in the Gulf of Mexico is going to get.

Like the rest of America, I'd seen all those things on my television, but I'm writing a novel set in south Louisiana and the oil spill changes everything. I needed to see the situation with my own eyes. And as a person with a long history in the area, including a brief stint working offshore south of Grand Isle, Louisiana, I needed to see it for myself.

I am the author of a series of mysteries that feature an archaeologist who works in the southeastern United States. Because of the nature of archaeology, it only makes sense that I weave the history of my books' settings into the plot. Because of who I am--a chemical engineer with another degree in physics, who has worked as an environmental consultant--I feel compelled to make sure my fictional world operates properly. My stories are intended to be entertainments, so the history and science are buried

deep beneath the surface. I do not believe you will ever pick one up and say, "This reads like a textbook! Yuck!"

On the contrary, the books get great reviews that use words like"fascinating" and compelling," and they've won awards for being fun to read. But they also get good reviews from archaeologists and recognitions like an award from the Florida Historical Society. When I start researching a new story, I'm serious about getting things right, so I go to the source.

When I wrote my fifth book, Floodgates, I sold it to my editor by pointing out that I was the author to write a book about post-Katrina New Orleans that would be different from any other, because I have family there and a personal history there that includes a summer working offshore in the Gulf. I also pointed out that, as a licensed engineer, I just might have something worthwhile to say about the levee failures.

She saw my point and let me write the book. I made much the same argument in favor of my writing my current work-in-progress, Plunder, a book that features the oil spill catastrophe and, again, she let me write the book. (I love her for being willing to listen to me.)

I figured that something as unprecedented as millions of gallons of oil stretching over a goodly chunk of real estate was something I needed to see with my own eyes before I could write about it intelligently, so I got in my car and drove east until I got to New Orleans.

As I drove across on I-10, the only certain indication of the disaster was periodic announcements on the Panhandle radio stations that scattered tar balls had begun washing up on their beaches, but that they were otherwise fine and open for business. As we all know, by the end of the day, those tar balls had proliferated and morphed into the splattering of oil globs that has at the time of this writing has affected 150 miles of what were the prettiest beaches I've ever seen.

There was an odd moment when I an unmistakable whiff of raw oil seeped into my car cabin. I still don't know how this could be. I was miles inland from the gulf. I spent the next few days after that way down in the Mississippi delta, which is soaked

with the stuff just a few miles way from where I was, yet I only detected such a strong scent of oil once. And when I did, there was no oil in sight. Can sea breezes really carry volatile organic compounds so far? Who knows? I'm sure BP doesn't.

Another subtlety I noticed during my drive were two trucks loaded with pipe that was maybe 3 feet in diameter and 20 feet in length. It wasn't a particularly noteworthy sight, except for the police escort, before and after the trucks. There was no wide load sign, and the loads weren't wide. These escorts weren't the traffic technicians that usually accompany wide loads. They were marked cars with blue lights flashing. Coming home, I saw other trucks carrying the exact same load and being escorted in the exact same way.

I think the pipe was destined for the relief wells being drilled to stop the oil flow, and it was a visual reminder of the enormity of that task. If it takes two trucks and two law enforcement vehicles to transport about 120 feet of pipe, what level of effort will it take merely to get the equipment for those very important wells to the site, much less to drill two such tremendously deep wells? This may be part of the reason we're being told that it will be August before the wells will be finished. Again, who knows? Maybe somebody has to make the pipe before the wells can be completed. It seems to me that someone should have thought of the logistics of this Herculean effort before they ever began drilling at that depth in the first place.

As I neared New Orleans, I drove over swamps and industrial canals and neighborhoods that shouldn't be still trashed from Katrina, but they are. I whizzed past high-rises and the Superdome, and my car climbed high, high above the Mississippi River. Then I hung a left and stopped in Algiers to pick up my cousin Cheryl.

Cheryl grew up on the West Bank and still lives there. She spent several years living in Plaquemines Parish. She'd told me that she thought she could find a friend with a fishing camp we could borrow for the weekend. She could think of three off the top of her head, but she hoped she could get us access to her friend Kenny's camp because it "was nice."

I was expecting something like this:

(Notice how the gorgeous water and sky makes plumbing-free shacks built with scraps of plywood and random pieces of roofing look fairly beautiful.)

Here's the actual camp:

It has four bedrooms, granite countertops, stainless steel professional appliances, and it is beautifully decorated. I looked and looked for something in that "fishing camp" that wasn't nicer than anything I owned. Nope. I was hoping for a relaxing getaway, but I really didn't expect luxury. Score!

On that first evening two exhausted single moms planned our tour of the Mississippi River delta. We did this while sitting on the porch of that magnificent "camp", looking out over the water while we soaked in the jacuzzi, drank beer, and digested a big platter of crawfish. It was truly hard to imagine the devastation that is surely coming to that very spot.

The next morning, we headed south, intending to drive down Plaquemines Highway until it ended in Venice.

To picture this drive, you must first know that the countryside is utterly flat. The difference between water and land in this part of the country is sometimes a mere matter of opinion. If a person digs a ditch, hecreates a canal. If he takes the dirt from that ditch and piles it alongside, he creates something that looks to the Louisianan like dry land, so he thinks he might as well build a house on it...and it will be a canalfront house, which is a wonderful thing in this place where everybody loves to fish.

The land on either side of the highway was always low-lying and it was often swampy. The Mississippi River was to our left, and various bays and waterways that are attached to the Gulf were on our right. Waterfronts in both directions are protected by levees, so there was almost always at least one levee within sight. Often those protective piles of dirt rose above us in both directions, a visual reminder that we were following a narrow spit of land as far out to sea as it would take us.

Between our camp in Myrtle Grove and Venice, I had spotted Fort Jackson on the map. It was labeled as a historical site, so I figured it was more than just a campsite named after a long-gone fort. The fort was well-marked, so we had no trouble finding the beautifully constructed old (1822!) masonry building. Unfortunately, it was closed, probably in the wake of Katrina, but we could drive along the access road between the fort and the river. We parked there and got out to explore the area that wasn't closed. Up on the levee was an observation point with a wonderful view of the river and the fort, and of a bayou across the river known as Mardi Gras Bayou that is said to have the oldest place name (1699!) in the Mississippi Valley.

This little tour would have been exactly as I expected it to be, except for the constant thwapping of helicopter blades. Some sort of relief effort was being conducted from the fort property, and many helicopters were taking off in quick succession. They were dangling cables loaded with...something. Dispersant? Cameras? Cheryl and I could hardly contain our curiosity.

We didn't feel comfortable striding into that busy makeshift heliport, so we approached two gentlemen walking across the parking lot. They were wearing protective jumpsuits and had just disembarked from a helicopter that didn't seem to be associated with the others. It turned out that they were with the Fish and Wildlife Commission, and they'd been out doing reconnaissance. They'd come in to deliver an oiled pelican to someone who could help. We asked if they'd seen the spill. They said, yes, and that it was bad. They gestured across the highway and said "It's about fifteen miles over there."

Now the twisty river makes the geography of that area mindbendingly difficult to grasp, but I know one thing. Fifteen miles isn't as far as I'd like it to be. We were well above the end of the road at Venice, and Venice is a long way from the river outlets. I did not like hearing that the oil had come up so far.

The two workers needed to go get some lunch, so we didn't keep them, but we did ask if they knew what the helicopters at Fort Jackson were carrying. "Sandbags," they said. "To fill the gaps between some of the barrier islands."

Now, sand is heavy. The sandbags that those big helicopters were able to carry were relatively small. How many trips will it take to move an

appreciable amount of sand by air? Nevertheless, those pilots were giving it a good try. Helicopters came and went so rapidly that the whole area sounded like a war zone.

Here's one of the choppers flying over the old fort. You can see the sandbag cable dangling.

And here are some other helicopters, flying over the fort's riverside lookout post, heading off on a mission that doesn't seem to involve sandbags. They were heading across the river, while the sandbag activities seemed to be west of us. I'm thinking they were doing reconnaissance.

When we left Fort Jackson, we headed to the end of the road in Venice. There, we saw a command post sending many workers out into the spill zone. When we got back to the house in Myrtle Grove, we were surprised to see another command post at the marina there. Again, workers arrived by the busload, and a flotilla of boats loaded with passengers were heading out.

Two things crossed my mind. First, all that effort is just not enough. Huge efforts by lots of people will help the situation, but the affected area is unimaginably vast. And second, I was disconcerted to see so much work being done so far north.

We had plans the next day to take a boat out to see the spill. The presence of these workers made me think we wouldn't need to travel nearly as far as I would like.


Tomorrow : The spill

Mary Anna Evans' web address is


Vicki Delany said...

Fascinating stuff, Mary Anna an d Donis. Thanks for posting this. Funny how the oil spill (not a leak! more like a disaster) has so quickly disappeared from the news. Eagerly awaiting tomorrow.

Mary Anna Evans said...

Thanks for squeezing the whole post in, Donis, even if it did take two days to do it. The area affected by the spill is just so vast that I had to see it with my own eyes just to get a tenuous idea of what had happened. I'm glad to have a chance to get that story out to your readers, because I think we're just beginning to understand how significant the impact will be.