Leaving was actually very hard to do. On the way out of the marina, I
spotted tri-colored herons feeding along the side of the road, the
alligators suspended in water, cypress trees and extraordinary vegetation,
partially submerged cars and trucks from Katrina. Then the very warm thanks
from everyone I met. Thank you for caring to come here and help, I heard it
time and time again. Yes it was hard to leave, except when I got out of the
air conditioned car. Then I was ready for home and open windows and my guys.
But I will be going back.
I had another day at Fort Jackson planned, but had to stop and photograph
the alligators on the way, so cool. Day seven went pretty much as the
previous one did, with me helping out where ever I could and talking to the
very positive and up beat team that were there (one person had taken a class
with me in Palm Desert some 4 years ago!). I decided to leave by 6 PM and
return to my lodgings, shower off the copious sweat, and go to the local
marina restaurant for supper. I was able to talk to many chaps involved in
this whole mess. One is actually manufacturing, as rapidly as they can,
anchors for the booms, as they have run out. Also many of the local people
are quite dismayed at what is going on, and shared with me what they were
I was leaving in the morning, they were in it for the long haul.
Everyone was taking off except me. I had been invited to stay with a
forensic psychiatrist who was volunteering at Fort Jackson, so I packed my
gear and headed out to the rehab station. I spent the day working with Dr
Erica Miller from Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, admitting birds,
sweeping floors, restocking coolers, and generally helping out where ever I
could. I learned one heckuva lot! And sweated a lot!
The team there is outstanding. Everyone made me feel so welcome and shared
with me their trials and triumphs. I also so saw first hand how interesting
being in the bayou could be. I went out the back to for some reason and saw
a rather large snake trying to get through the chicken mesh fence. It had
obviously eaten and its full belly would not pass through the fence. I
called for my colleagues to come and look – this was pretty exciting stuff –
and was told it was a non-venomous water snake. Since there are many
venomous snakes around, everyone is understandable cautious. I can tell you
it makes for a cautious approach to and use of the port-a-potties. The
temperature was still over 100F with the humidity.
Up at 5am. I was given permission to go to Fort Jackson at 8am – a 2 hour
drive away. I arrived and was allowed to sign in and get identification
under the auspices of the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC).
I then spent several hours meeting the teams and watching as they went about
their jobs. The main intake is pelicans, primarily brown’s, but also the odd
white one. The brown pelicans were far more benign than that white one,
which launched itself at the side of its cage and snapped its beak every
time someone went by. There was a backlog in washing as they had been
slammed with intake the previous week, however they are managing to wash
between 30 and 40 birds daily, in temperatures that are inhumane to the
people. That day the temperature there was approximately 120°F. I watched
one chap put his Tyvek suit on, work in admissions for 20 minutes, then
remove his Tyvek, revealing that all his clothing underneath was wet with
sweat. The need to supervise the team members for heat stress is critical,
and everyone is charged with looking out for each other. There are coolers
with water and Gatorade everywhere. After the morning at the center, I
joined the team from HSUS and sat in on meetings with the local parish
presidents, Congress member, and Senate, followed by observing the press
conference. Most interesting.
Next was a visit to the Marine Turtle Recovery Center at the Audubon Rehab
Station. They seem to have a very well organized process in place, and plan
on holding these turtles until it is safe to return them to the wild, no
matter how long it takes.
We spent this day out in the helicopter again, flying eastward into Alabama.
This is where the reality finally hit me. Flying over Mobile Bay between the
land and Dauphin Island you could see extensive oil slicks and sheen. Not so
bad in itself until you really looked and saw dolphins swimming in it, it
looks so benign from 2000 feet up. That was a very sobering sight. But again
the enormity of what this region is facing was brought home to us. We landed
for refueling and decided to visit a local beach that had tar balls reported
on it. Sure enough there were extensive areas of tar balls and the water was
quite turbid. People were still using the beach but not allowed to swim. The
laughing gulls were everywhere and in a group of 20 I observed, three were
obviously open mouth breathing, not a good sign, and one, as it flew off
seemed unsteady. I had observed one bird drinking from a pool of water
surrounded by tar balls. The flight back to New Orleans took us along the
coast and over Lake Pontchartrain. The sun was going down and there was a
haze to the day. We were in Huey helicopter, and all I could think as the
sun was reflected off Lake Pontchartrain and our Safety Officers helmet was,
my God, Apocalypse Now! We had just seen tar balls over an extensive area of
beach, most of it still in the water sunk to the dips in the sand and some
areas of oiling on the shoreline itself.
Get up time 2:30am. Out of the hotel at 3am to get to the boat. Still hot
and humid even at this time of the day.
Today was spent out on the water looking at the problem from the water level
into both the marshes and wetland areas, and the again, the enormity of the
issue. In every direction there are oil rigs, and boats servicing these
structures. In the distance you could see the oil tankers lined up and
docking at the offshore centers. Under the water, by watching the sonar, you
could see all of the pipeline structures in place as well for moving oil
from the wellhead to the processing and shipping sites. We saw one patch of
water that may have had suspended oil droplets in it, but up until that
evening we had not seen any oil. That changed when we made a visit, after
docking, to Grand Isle. This beach had been heavily oiled and was in the
process of being cleaned. There is no smell associated with this oil as it
has weathered and all the “light ends” have been lost. So essentially it is
a tarry substance either coating areas on the beach or in tar balls.
Today I saw up close the marshland and birds. Birds everywhere; snowy
egrets, laughing gulls, shore birds, cattle egrets, red-winged blackbirds,
boat tailed grackles, frigate birds, pelicans, terns, great blue herons, …
it was fantastic with a number of firsts for me.
The heat and humidity had not abated at all and we were up early in what was
to become the pattern of long days, with early starts, late nights and
little sleep. It was mainly all work.
We spent the day in a helicopter surveying the Mississippi Delta region and
extensive wetlands. Many attempts at booming were apparent, and many of the
levees were closed by riprap. The main impression from this day is the
enormity of the task at hand should oil get into this area. All of the areas
we flew over were under the tidal surge associated with any hurricane. If
oil gets into these sensitive areas, any wildlife caught in it will simply
disappear into the huge tracts of green. What a nightmare that would be.
The helicopter, a Huey, also had seen service in Vietnam. I love flying and
flying in a helicopter is a special treat. This one had a very special
impact as I thought about all those wonderful young men who jumped out of,
maybe even this aircraft, and their last sounds heard were the whoop, whoop
distinctive Huey sound as their transport lifted off. It was very poignant
and I also wondered about the wildlife we were flying over, would this sound
also be their last? I tried to focus on the reverse, the whoop, whoop of
rescue craft, as you, scared, tired, dirty, were waiting for your transport
helicopter to come and retrieve you. Mostly I failed and all I could think
about was the enormity of the situation.
It was an uneventful trip down to Louisiana, and my first time in New
Orleans. The signs of Hurricane Katrina are still everywhere, from the new
houses side by side with abandoned wrecks with holes in the roofs from
people hacking their way to safer ground on top of their homes. It is hard
to imagine that another blow of immense proportions is happening.
Everyone on the team arrived on the Thursday and met at the Maison Dupuy in
New Orleans for our first get-together that evening. It was rapidly apparent
that Deb Parsons-Drake, Senior Director, HSUS Animal Care Centers had
assembled a very special team. Laura Bevan has worked with logistical
activities for the HSUS including a great deal of work through Hurricane
Katrina. Sharon Young has worked on the Marine mammal issues at many levels.
Barry Kellogg, a senior veterinarian from HSUS has extensive training and
knowledge of disaster work (another Katrina vet) caring for the animals and
wildlife devastated by these events. Jim Reed is a very knowledgeable
habitat biologist. Ed Clark, whom I first met in 1986, is from the Wildlife
Center of Virginia and very involved in the rehabilitation of wildlife. It
was going to be a privilege to work with these people – I knew I would learn
a great deal.
My first impression of New Orleans – HOT!!!! And humid. The thermometer read
93F – add 10 degrees for the humidity – I was dripping every time I stepped
What a nightmare! I have been watching the Gulf spill happen from a safe
distance, horrified at the images shown in newspapers and TV, all from the
comfort of my own home. That ends this Thursday. I have been asked by the
Humane Society of the US (HSUS) to join a very special group to visit and
offer insight and expert knowledge into the long term impacts this spill
will have for the wildlife in this region. As a rehabber, I know the joy and
heartbreak involved in caring for wildlife that has come off second best in
interactions with us. Oil spills are only one of the assaults to our
environment, however, it is one that I have also studied, especially the
long term impacts the toxicity of oil has on the avian body. Oil disrupts
many essential pathways; impacting pair bonding and breeding behaviours, egg
production and producing deformed embryos.
As a rehabber, IWRC board member and scientist, I hope I can offer some
constructive insight into the potential long term impacts the Gulf Coast
wildlife will be confronted with over the next many years.