On Human Costs of Disasters

We’ve all seen the atrocious toll that the Deepwater Horizon disaster has taken, the oil and tarballs on beaches, the pelicans coated in the sludge.  We all heard (though many complained, with some justification, not enough) about the fact that 11 men who worked aboard the rig were killed in the initial explosions.  I say with some justification, because I don’t actually know if they were all men.  The industry is dominated by men but not exclusively ruled by men…  We have seen ample evidence of the havoc that has been wreaked by our efforts to extract more precious petroleum, that resource on which we have an unbreakable addiction, from more and more inaccessible locations.

There’s been only little bits said about the ripple effects spreading throughout the region, as fisheries are likely forever poisoned, and the people who depend on the Gulf to eke out some sort of a life for themselves stare at a future more bleak than any they have likely ever known.  It’s not just this one thing, either – but a series of catastrophes, mainly natural, that blight the region.

I’ve never been to Louisiana, but sometime soon I want to go – I want to see as best I can what’s left of the place, to try to and imagine what it was like before all these messes befell the region.

The great encapsulation of the tragedy is the story I heard the other day of William Allen Kruse, the captain of a charter fishing vessel based in Alabama called the Rookie.  His business basically destroyed, he took work from BP as part of the cleanup, and according to what I can read about him, became utterly despondent at seeing the fact that what he had build his entire livelihood around lay in ruins around him.  After putting out to sea, he was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.  His story, I fear, isn’t particularly unique – the ending perhaps more tragic than many will be, but the cost on the mental health of the people impacted directly must be staggering in ways most people cannot even begin to comprehend.  There are a variety of sources (that I’m apparently just too lazy tonight to link) about increases in domestic violence, people seeking medical attention for mental health issues, etc in the region, because of the impact of the spill.

It’s not just fishermen and charter boat operators being trashed.  It’s the various companies that service drill rigs.  There is a company based not far from where I live that is big in this industry, and these are very, very good paying jobs that are vanishing.  From a purely economic standpoint, that impact too must be felt in places like Port Fourchon which is one of the main supply bases for drilling operations.  Companies that own the support ships, companies that supply the rigs, they are all basically grinding to halts.  That means less people having money to spend on virtually everything, the wonder of an economic concept called the multiplier at work, except in the reverse of the way we generally learn about it – the money flowing into these communities already drying up.

I read not long ago several interesting articles about the severe environmental issues that already existed in much of the south.  I’ve always had an interest in these sorts of things, you see, and I’m the kind of person who needs the distraction of randomly reading up on something from time to time during the day.  I was drawn to the story of some of the small towns in Louisiana in the Lake Charles area, for example, that play home to huge petrochemical factories, factories that some argue only exist there because of the fact that the locals, who we’ll just say are generally part of a particular identifiable group, were so significantly disenfranchised that they couldn’t prevent them from coming, even if they claimed to offer good jobs.  Companies making things like vinyl chloride, generating toxic pollution on scales incomprehensible to most people, in flagrant violation of the law.  Go take a look on Google Earth – look at Lake Charles and then pan east and south and see the massive complexes there.

This is the lot that these people have had to contend with for years.  And it’s gotten dramatically worse since Deepwater Horizon.

When I heard about Mr. Kruse’s suicide, I was riding in to work with my wife, as we do, and the conversation was one of the more interesting ones, and one of the few tiems it seems we wound up vehemently disagreeing.  While I don’t condone Mr. Kruse’s choice, I think I can empathize to some extent, I can see why he may have found there was no way out.  I can’t imagine the stress of watching everything you’ve ever worked at evaporate because of corporate greed (if that in fact was the cause, but it does sound that way thus far), with no ability to do anything about it.  I can imagine the financial hardship, and can’t help but wonder how leveraged he was already – what bills he couldn’t even begin to pay.

It’s hard to find any sort of hope in a situation this bleak.  I hope that this will be the only story of it’s kind I hear, but I can’t say I’m optimistic.

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