Alabama: Waves Too Rough for Booms

Bill Finch, the director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, is blogging for Cool Green Science about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Conservancy’s efforts in Alabama to protect shellfish reef restoration projects there. Read all his posts.

BAYOU LA BATRE, ALABAMA, May 2, 2010 — On Saturday morning, barges decked with giant coils of fluorescent yellow and orange booms designed to contain the coming oil spill here bobbed among fading shrimp boats on the Bayou (which is what the Alabama coastal community is called here).

There must be 30 miles of these floating vinyl tubes stacked up at multiple deployment areas all along the Alabama coast. All morning, tugs and a flotilla of smaller boats let off steam, ready to get the goods on the water before high winds drive the slick ashore.

Jeff Dequattro, the Nature Conservancy’s oyster restoration project manager here in Alabama, had pulled off something like a miracle, collecting 3,500 feet of boom and pallets of absorbent material from two or three different states in 24 hours. Just enough, maybe, to intercept the first swells of oil before they coat our newly established oyster reef around Coffee Island. The boom is on board, but the anchors are still in transit — to the wrong destination, we suddenly learn. Jeff rushes off to intercept. We wait as the wind blows harder.

Residents of the Bayou drive by anxiously, stopping to watch the Coast Guard crews load and unload, looking for any information that will give them a clue to what’s happening in the middle of the Gulf. As the crew of the Conservancy’s hired barge unfurls another roll of boom onto the deck, a man hops out of his pickup and offers them the use of his big crane.

Then he pleads: We have to do something to stop this. The crew said the man almost cried when they told him they couldn’t think of a way to use a giant crane right now.

Bayou La Batre is an industrial-strength fishing village on the Alabama coast — almost due north of what used to be the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. A forest of shrimp-boat spars line the twisting bayou that runs through the heart of the community. On old Shellbank Road, mountains of oyster shells — ready to build new reefs — stand between seafood processing facilities, boatyards and bait shops.

Every immigrant community that has made its way into Mobile’s three-century-old society seems to have started here on the Bayou — Creole, Caribbean, African, Norwegian, Greek and (starting a few decades ago) Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees. It’s sometimes an uneasy alliance, but each community finds a niche, picking crabs at the processors, or setting crab traps in the bay, tonging oysters off the reefs or shucking them for canning. There are shrimpers, commercial fishers, and the people who build their boats. There are ship chandlers that supply the boats, and restaurants that feed the crews.

Everyone who comes to the Bayou makes a living off the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. There is no living here without it.

The winds pick up. Even in the protection of the bayou, the crew teeters in the gusts. Jeff calls. The captain says no go. There’s no way to hold a barge steady in this blow, no way to anchor boom when the tides are surging several feet above normal. If the winds let up, maybe tomorrow. Monday perhaps. Tuesday for sure, if the worst of the oil hasn’t already rolled ashore. A crew down in Dauphin Island dropped a thousand feet of boom in front of 50 miles of marsh before the seas drove them home. But no one knows if the anchors will hold.

After a gray day of disappointments and predictions of the very worst, we look for glimmers. Keith Ouchley, director of the Conservancy’s Louisiana program, sends one. The boom deployments were called off there as well. But a quick survey of the southeast Louisiana marsh, where the spill should already have rolled ashore, revealed surprisingly little oil. Maybe, as someone suggested, the rough surf works in our favor, shattering the thin edge of the slick, volatilizing some of the oil before it reaches shore. Maybe. For how long? What happens when the thicker stuff rolls in? What happens if it goes on days, weeks, months?

Tonight, the winds are turning hard toward Alabama. We’ve got barges, we’ve got boom — I guess we’ve even got a big crane if anyone can figure out what to do with it. But for a few more hours at least, those of us on the Bayou will just have to wait to see what the Gulf will do.

(Image 1: Jesse Eldridge, foreman for the J&W Marine crew working with The Nature Conservancy, rips off a length of oil-collecting boom while other crew members lay it carefully on deck for deployment. Image 2: Another view of the Bayou and shrimp boats, with boom loaded on a barge. Image credits: Bill Finch/TNC.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Beautifully, beautifully written. Paints a vivid picture of our coastal communities and the impact on them – and all of us – from this disaster! Thank you for being our ‘eyes’.

  2. Heartbreaking. Mobile is my home. This tragedy isn’t like so many where we can donate money to the Red Cross and feel like we’ve helped. The general populace doesn’t know what to do. Thank you, Mr. Finch for this story, however sad it is.

  3. Thank you for sharing such a well written portrait of what is going on! I feel like the entire Gulf coast is holding it’s breath waiting to see when the oil will hit and how bad it is going to be. Like hurricane only, somehow, it feels much worse.

  4. What a wonderful article! This truly captures the spirit of cooperation between agencies, and the local populous. The depiction of the area is spot on. As a concerned and lifelong Gulf Coast resident, I found myself in tears, yet again, with the knowledge of what is to come.

  5. With so much disheartening news in the world we can become numb to tragedy. But this disaster brings me to tears–these events can become preventable if we could just break our dependency on oil and all the ‘stuff’ that requires it. Maybe we can’t throw money at the Red Cross, but we can strengthen our resolve to use less, much less, of every thing. Conserve energy, resourses, protect all things living-right down to the dirt! Recycle like our lives depend on it, they do! Avoid bulky packaging, refuse all plastic bags, leave each place we encounter cleaner than when we arrived, buy locally. Our family motto is, “If we don’t require it, it’s wasteful! ‘Require’ is a much higher standard than ‘need’. We try to think this way in all the little things we do each day. We all need to keep pushing aggressively for clean energy, reuseable and recyleable products. This may seem overly simplistic, but cleaning catastrauphic oil discharge from a raging sea is anything but. The faucet of use must stop with each of us and the resources we gobble without thought. THANK YOU to everyone at the Conservancy for doing everything possible no matter how depressing and challenging the parameters!!

  6. What is so sad is that we stand by, helpless, watching our wildlife, our livelihood and the future of our gulf in the balance of the winds, no one in the position to seems to be able to try anything, but so many common citizens have some really great ideas themselves!!! This reminds me of Katrina… I pray that the well will somehow be capped and that people who are in position will stop thinking about what to do, but do something…anything to stop this!!!

  7. Too late to pray when the Devil comes
    Too late once its there

  8. BIll Finch I/we just all have tio have faith that with everyones hard work and participation and readiness, it will all be okay. PRAYING.
    Beautiful article.

  9. Your article is inspiring me to come down there to help. Is there an environmental group that needs hands to help with affected animals or clean up?

  10. Heartbreaking. Sickening. To know the fate and demise of the defenseless victims in the path of this cancer that we can’t get enough of….more oil….more of everything. My heart aches for the suffering and dying that will come with the filth that has fouled and polluted our waters. Where is Sarah Palin now? Is she down in the bayou offering her support, chanting her singsong we all know so well that is’nt worth repeating.

  11. Florida Coastal Conservation For twenty years has worked to clean up the south Florida wet lands after storms and man made disasters. We are now working to compile resources and equipment in locations across the state of Florida to be ready to respond to these issues without delay. We are working with the Sierra Club and Other Environmental group as well as the Oil Companies to compile resources.

    We are seeking any company or with resources and expertise to contact us directly to join out team.

  12. Looking at the first picture it seems as the workers have no regard for safety. If you are working that close to water and moving large obstacles you need life jackets and hard hats. You do not want the boom to come loose, knock your head into concrete, roll over in the water and drown!

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