A flotilla of shrimp boats skimmed the waters of Brenton Bay at the mouth of the Mississippi Thursday in a desperate attempt to limit the damage to coastal marshes from the long tendrils of oil snaking in from the giant spill.
At least three dozen erstwhile shrimp boats, with oil-absorbing booms hanging from their outriggers instead of nets, sopped up oil the color of burnt sienna off the bay. All day, boats soaked up what crude they could, then headed to a mother ship, the engorged booms hanging from the outriggers like dead serpents. Then headed back to capture more oil.
Despite the operation, the escalating destruction caused by the encroaching oil was obvious. Just one day after the first waves of oil washed into the coastal marshes, stands of Roseau cane had turned black at the base and brown farther up the stalks. Just one day and these grasses were dying.
"This is killing the marsh almost instantly," said P.J. Hahn, the clearly disheartened director of coastal management for Plaquemines Parish, a rural peninsula south of New Orleans jutting into the Gulf of Mexico. "Everything this touches, it kills."
A month after the Deepwater Horizon exploded 50 miles south of here and sunk into the Gulf, setting off a catastrophic spill, favorable wind and currents kept the giant plume of oil away from the fragile coast, a marshy land feathering out from the mouth of the Mississippi River that provides a spawning ground for fish, crab, shrimp and oysters.
"We had hoped we were going to miss this," Hahn said. Last week, he said, some early signs of oil had disappeared.
Hope died this week. The oil reappeared. "This has been like tracking a serial killer," Hahn said.
On Wednesday, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser and Gov. Bobby Jindal led an airboat expedition into the Roseau cane marshes and discovered pools of oil.
The armada of shrimp boats, outfitted with the absorbent booms in lieu of nets, were sent into the bay Thursday. But even as they skimmed oil off the bay surface, long meandering waves of oil flowed through Pass a Loutre into Brenton Bay. The long columns of oil were accompanied by thousands of blobs, some no bigger than coins, others big as pancakes.
It was like a great pointillist painting using the darkest orange on a mad artist's pallet. To horrifying effect. "And that's just what we can see on the surface," Hahn said.
But the real fear was that oil coming through on Thursday was only a harbinger of what's coming. Hahn noted that even if BP could seal their disastrous leak today, coastal Louisiana would still be forced to contend with the inestimable quantities of spilled oil still churning in the gulf. It had the feel of an endless supply of bad news.
Parish President Nungesser wants money and federal assistance and expedited permits to dredge up 90 miles of earthen ramparts off the coast, creating to protect the lagoons and marshes considered vital to the state's seafood industry. "We have to have this," Hahn said. "Nothing else worked."
Indeed, it was obvious Thursday that oil driven by wind and waves was breaching the plastic booms supposed to protect the marshes. "Without those barrier islands, this is going to kill everything. Fish, birds, grass, animals," he said.
He looked out at the killing oil, floating by in long dark swirls and said, "This is just the first wave."