Uncertainty Along the Mississippi Gulf Coast (PHOTOS)

Trip-1-E-1024x768Last week, I co-led my first mapping trip with volunteers from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. If you aren't familiar with the project, more information about it is available at http://grassrootsmapping.org/. Using basic technology, volunteers, like myself, have begun an intensive effort to collect high-resolution photographs of Gulf Coast beaches using hand-held digital cameras, kites, and weather balloons in order to track the impact of the oil spill along the Gulf Coast. As you can see from the photos that follow, our approach is pretty low-tech, but once the photos that result are digitally stitched together, they provide a great overview of the coast, and are high-resolution enough to distinguish individual animals.

Kite and/or helium-filled garbage bag + digital camera = digital aerial mapping

Mapping stop #1: Simpson Pier in Long Beach, MS

Mapping stop #2: Abandoned marina in Biloxi

Awesome LA Bucket Brigade volunteers hard at work

Notice the kite, top left; BP station, bottom center.

The only thing out of place this bright, sunny day

The lone piece of boom we saw that day

My first trip took me to coastal Mississippi, specifically Long Beach and Biloxi, about an hour and a half east of New Orleans. Being a recent implant to the city, I turned to Global Green New Orleans Office Manager, Heidi Jensen, to get an idea of what these beaches mean to New Orleanians. To locals, she said, these beaches mean an affordable summer get-away for hard-working families looking to escape the heat of the city. To her, it is the natural beauty of attractions like Ship Island (off the Biloxi coast) that draw both tourists and locals--Wildlife, dolphins numbering sometimes in the hundreds, frolicking only feet away from where we swim - huge flocks of birds on the western tip -- pelicans watching us as we ferry over, the dolphins chasing alongside the boat -- beautiful, unspoiled beach, CLEAR water--yummy local seafood, gulf breeze, the view, the sunsets. For local businesses, these summer visitors are a main source of income; like our local fishermen, this is their busy season, where they make the funds that will sustain them the rest of the year. Below are photos that illustrate some of the things people love about the Mississippi Coast.

Relaxing on Ship Island

West end of Ship Island

Marina at Pass Christian

Fishing in Long Beach

Because of the tragic reports coming out of Southern Louisiana, I was both anticipating and fearing our mapping trip. Fortunately, on this first trip out there was not much to report; everything seemed like business as usual, with tourists and fishermen trolling the beaches and piers. If I hadn't already known about the huge mass of oil approaching from offshore, what I saw wouldn't have provided a single clue about the tragedy unfolding in the Gulf. We didn't see a single fish washed ashore, nor any of the dead sea turtles which have recently made news.

On the warm, sunny day, it was easy to get lost up in beauty of the scene, and I was glad to see that tourists and locals were still enjoying the beach, relaxing and contributing to the local economy. However, it also struck me that these areas lay near NOAA's 'uncertainty' boundary on the most recent spill projection maps. This means, according to NOAA's website, that some of their models have suggested that oil is likely present in those areas. Facing this reality, it struck me that not only did we not see any oil, we didn't see any booms. There seemed to be very little preparation going on for a disaster that could fully cripple the economy of these coastal towns so beloved by locals and tourists alike.

These are the places where people grew up making memories with their families; the Mississippi coast is the foundation of many of happy summers for hard working families, and is an economy dependent on the preservation of its natural beauty for this very reason. As it faces its uncertain future, only time will tell if the missing booms are justified optimism or poor planning as the oil continues to spread.