Guest Blog Post by Shannon Dosemagen, Member Action Associate for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. She has a MS in Cultural Anthropology and is currently managing the technical efforts behind the Oil Spill Crisis Map. She can be reached at Shannon@labucketbrigade.org In February, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB) began working with students from the Tulane University GIS class of Professor Nathan Morrow to develop a map using the Ushahidi platform. The purpose of the map was to address the large number of oil refinery accidents that happen in the state of Louisiana. The same day as their final class presentation, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. The following day it sank into the Gulf of Mexico, spewing what is now estimated at 210,000 gallons of oil a day. Burning the oil was one of the techniques that officials were testing to figure out ways to stop the spread. On April 29th, while standing in front of our office in Mid-City New Orleans, we smelled that burning oil as it blanketed the city that afternoon. Our office is located approximately 80 miles from Venice, the town closest in Louisiana to where the oil rig once stood. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade works with communities located near oil refineries and has seen firsthand, over the last decade, the health impacts on communities from the un-regulated release of VOCs and benzene (among other pollutants) through refinery accidents. Thus, our staff team of four grabbed buckets to go take air samples in Plaquemines Parish. While sitting in a traffic jam caused by the tourist rush of the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival, we made a group decision to launch the Ushahidi platform as the “Oil Spill Crisis Map” since the Gulf Coast was faced with the onslaught of a man-made disaster. One of the interesting things about an oil spill is that, contrary to the common idea that everyone can help scrub a bird free of oil, people are only able to volunteer to help with such efforts if they are properly trained and certified. Even though the oil spill happened in what could be considered our neighborhood, the environmental groups in Louisiana have only been allowed a small degree of access to the spill area and efforts to assist in the clean up. As an environmental and social justice organization, we felt that by launching the Oil Spill Crisis Map we would be contributing a creative solution that could make a real impact, especially as clean-up efforts continue and the livelihoods of our fishermen, shrimpers and oystermen, as well as the already fragile wetland ecosystems they rely on (and Louisiana relies on for Hurricane protection), are threatened.
When I went to Hopedale, a fishing community in St. Bernard Parish, as I spoke with fishermen and shrimpers, I repeatedly heard comments such as “What am I going to do? I have no education, I have no way to support my family,” or “I’ve been fishing for 70 years, this is all I know, and all I can do now is sit and wait.” It is critical that there is a platform that engages people and provides a place where they can share their experiences and stories and that is exactly what the Oil Spill Crisis Map does. In partnership with the Tulane University Disaster Resilience Academy we are using the visual reports generated on the Oil Spill Crisis Map to document and create public transparency to the way that the Gulf Coast is being affected by the oil spill. With this map we will also be facilitating accountability of the response as this must be watched and documented in any man-made disaster. As the oil continues to spill and we find that there is limited access to the official clean-up efforts, we also use this map as a way for the public to give visible testimony to how they are being affected and what they are seeing firsthand. The Gulf oil spill has the attention of the world, but besides the environmental impacts, we have yet to see the humanitarian crisis that is emerging. Only five years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Gulf Coast fishing communities are still recovering from losses that they suffered and thus this blow to their livelihoods could be completely devastating. The seafood and hospitality industries rely on coastal environments and communities and thus an entire economic chain is being destabilized. The potential impact to livelihoods is immeasurable and will be mapped to show the economic extent of this spill.