A year ago today I fell in love with a barrier island. At Grand Isle State Park I worked as the park’s Naturalist. Grand Isle was mysterious yet innocent, exotic but strangely familiar. I never knew I could love a place more dearly than New Orleans, I am not sure exactly how it happened. It may have started with the Winter trips to the surrounding barrier islands where I studied gulls, terns and plovers. Shorebirds that had traveled thousands of miles to nest in colonies on these desolate patches of land. I was able to explore islands few people have ever heard of and still may never have the chance, these fragile and rare ecosystems are at the brink of disappearing into the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But there isn’t anything quite like the vibrant reds, yellows and blues of the migratory song birds that flew outside my camp’s window in Early Spring. Tanagers, warblers and buntings sang to me about the tropics as I sipped on my morning coffee from my porch. On windy Summer nights I ran the length of the front beach, first towards the sunset to the west end and returned gazing up through the dark night sky on the East side. How could anyone not fall in love with this place? For six blissful months nothing much happened on Grand Isle. The tides came and went twice a day, unlucky Moon jellies beached themselves every morning and the lone Kingfisher spent most of his afternoons fishing in the salt marshes. Nothing changed but the wildlife. The winter nesters and springtime migrators had gone and I was left with our resident water fowl. Brown pelicans and Great Blue egrets greeted me each morning as I rode my bike past the park’s gates and along the salt lagoons. I spent most of my time identifying species and cataloging plants, I spent most of my time with just me and the island. I had no idea soon I would be jerked away from my hermit crab shell. In late April 2010, I arrived at work with people talking about an explosion. An offshore oil rig spill exploded 50 miles away from our coast. Everyone was talking about it but no one had any idea from that day on that life changed on Grand Island and would never be the same for many years to come. Soon all of my educational programing at the park would be shut down due to the massive amounts of oil that would devastate our beaches and salt marshes for months, now years. I would see what the Media didn’t show and cry about the lives that BP ruined. But most of all I got angry at the Government that yet again failed to protect me and the new place that I called home. After weeks of mopping I decided to do something. I tried to get my hands in on the cleanup efforts but I couldn’t get past the red tape. So I created the Hermit Crab Survival Project, a volunteer opportunity for the hundreds of people who came to the park wanting to help. I created this project in response to the hundreds of people who came to Grand Isle from all over the World in search of a way they could help, and also in response to the thousands of hermit crabs who were suffocating underneath the thick layers of crude oil that would be washing ashore for months to come. Like the Hermit Crabs many volunteers felt stuck and overwhelmed with the largest environmental disaster of our Nation’s History and with the little opportunities for common people to help. Many people who came and volunteered were shocked at the environmental impacts but inspired by having a chance to help. But everyone left with a nagging uncertainty of the looming consequences that would take decades to come to light. After the Media reported that ‘the oil was gone’ our volunteers slowly stopped coming and calling despite the oil that continued to wash ashore as well as the dead wildlife that came with it. A few months later the island was quiet, but you could here a low but growing rumbling. It was coming from a community that was broken, from fisherman who lost their lively hoods, from residents wishing for restoration, and from an island that once bustled with wildlife that now boomed with heavy machinery. The infamous tarballs still tumble ashore but the capricious reporters have long but driven back up the bayou leaving an island that still had a story. Soon after I came back to New Orleans I starting teaching about the BP Drilling Disaster in local schools. I was very excited when I found a position with the Gulf Restoration Network and was able to continue my quest for corporate accountability and environmental protection. The GRN is one of those few organizations that remind you everyday that you are working for a purpose and not a paycheck. I want to bring my children and grandchildren to Grand Isle, to catch a glimpse of the tropical songbirds, to swim with the moon jellies and build castles in the clean sand. Grand Isle has inspired me and I will always be there to tell her story.
- Leanne Sarco, AmeriCorps VISTA. For more information on volunteer opportunities, please visit the Gulf Restoration Network’s website.