Last week, we took our kids down to Dauphin Island for Spring Break. The weather could not have been more glorious. Even with forecasts promising 70-80 percent chances of rain on a couple of days, we mostly saw sunshine. We didn’t even bother making fun of our local meteorologists (too easy!), we just took it as a pleasant surprise.
The South Mobile County beach sand, usually portrayed as a dirtier, less attractive stepsister to the grains of Baldwin, was particularly sugary. The breeze was light.
But still, there was a great heaviness in the air, as tragedy gripped the island.
As my kids dug around in the sand and giggled, as carefree as 3- and 5-year-olds should be, planes flew above, police four-wheelers patrolled up and down the beach and rescue boats skirted along the shoreline, all looking for someone else’s children, who were taken down by the violent riptides lurking beneath the seemingly tranquil blue-gray waters.
Two 16-year-old boys from Mobile lost their lives last week. An unimaginable tragedy for any parent to have to bear. First responders worked tirelessly around the clock to find these kids and return them to their families. And they did, perhaps providing a modicum of comfort to their loved ones.
All parents know the knot you get in your chest, as you imagine how you would be if this had been your child. And you have to stop yourself because just can’t even fathom it. It’s too overwhelming to even contemplate.
My heart continues to break for these families, and I pray they will find peace.
As I watched the deputies patrol up and down the beach, I was also reminded it has almost been five years since another tragedy gripped our shorelines and headlines.
On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oilrig exploded, killing 11 men. Almost five million gallons of oil then gushed into the Gulf waters until it was eventually capped 87 days later.
In addition to the 11 lost, who often seem to be forgotten, the survivors were traumatized in ways in which they will most likely never fully recover.
I remember the days immediately after the spill when we all thought about the very worst-case scenarios and just what all might be taken from us. Nothing as terrible as from those 11 families, but still a lot.
Of course, we worried for the many, many people in our community who make their living off the Gulf waters and what it would do to their households and entire communities. And for those of us who have spent our entire lives living and playing on this water, we were terrified an integral part of our culture would be irreparably damaged, soaked in BP’s bitter “sweet crude” forever.
I remember feeling so numb and helpless as we watched the footage of the well just spewing oil into the Gulf day after day. My husband and I even rushed down to Gulf Shores right after the spill with our son, who was 8-months-old at the time, thinking it might be the only time he would ever be able to experience the beach as we had, even though he wouldn’t remember it.
We all endured the images of oil-soaked birds and we discovered new meanings to familiar words like ball and mat and sheen and boom. We heard about the injustices of the claims process … and the abuses. And in those first few months, we just didn’t know what this meant for us long term. And in many ways we still don’t.
BP almost immediately started dumping money into our local economies, as they should have. But after the words mat and ball reverted back to their former meanings and things seemed to sort of get back to “normal” — at least on the surface — talk of the spill faded out of the public’s consciousness, as it shouldn’t have.
Some who benefitted from the ”BP money” that had already been doled out would whisper to others at cocktail parties, “This thing was that best thing that ever happened to us, though I’d never admit to saying that.”
And on the surface, things do seem just fine. And I am glad my kids dug around the sand last week the same way I was able to 30-something years ago (yikes), nary a tar-shaped anything in sight.
But are we really sure things are back to “normal?”
You read one study that says Mother Nature did an excellent job of cleaning herself up after man’s tragic mistake and the Gulf has bounced back well. And of course, BP got their employee with the strongest Southern accent to reassure us in television ads that the Gulf is healthier than ever.
But then there are other studies detailing illness in bottlenose dolphins near the spill site, mutated ants and marsh erosion, along with reminders it took years to truly understand the effects the Exxon Valdez had on Alaska.
Is there something out there lurking beneath those seemingly tranquil blue gray waters, something we can’t see that may be harming us, much slower than a riptide but just as deadly? Or are we totally fine? I have no idea. And you can find whatever answers you would like to hear, it just depends on the source.
I suppose only time will tell.
If you haven’t seen Mobile native and award-winning filmmaker Margaret Brown’s documentary “The Great Invisible” yet, which tackles this from every angle, especially the human side of this tragedy, you must. I was nearly brought to tears when it premiered at the Saenger. It is now available for purchase on iTunes.