Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Bayou Corne, Louisiana: The Sinkhole, Part 2

Bayou Corne, Louisiana. July 2014.

Bayou Corne, Louisiana: The Sinkhole, Part 1 is here.

This astonishing 2012 video stunned:

In brief, here's what seems to have happened

From the New York Times: BAYOU CORNE, La. — It was nearly 16 months ago that Dennis P. Landry and his wife, Pat, on a leisurely cruise in their Starcraft pontoon boat, first noticed a froth of bubbles issuing from the depths of Bayou Corne, an idyllic, cypress-draped stream that meanders through swampy southern Louisiana. They figured it was a leaky gas pipeline. So did everyone else.... 

Just over two months later, in the predawn blackness of Aug. 3, 2012, the earth opened up — a voracious maw 325 feet across and hundreds of feet deep, swallowing 100-foot trees, guzzling water from adjacent swamps and belching methane from a thousand feet or more beneath the surface.

Oil-industry-related actors caused the collapse of the natural infrastructure.

Well, oil-industry-related actors were the immediate causal agents.

Indirect actors were (are) local, regional, state, and national officials with mixed interests; men and women whose livelihoods currently depend (directly and indirectly) on the oil industry; and all of the rest of us - including me - who, for so many reasons, don't ask questions.

What caused the sinkhole is important.

And what's just as important, in my opinion, is how we interpret such events and their consequences, and that's what this post is about.

First, the anti-climax

I didn't see much of the sinkhole. But I did have other adventures on my journey here, here, here, and here. Not to mention the giant dead snake in the road outside of Pierre Part.

Dead snake outside Pierre Part, Louisiana. July 2014.

I was reminded of some life lessons

Lesson #1: Getting truly informed on an issue takes a lot of time and effort. When I was a college student during the Reagan Era, I had a project in which I needed to study the US military relationships in Central America, specifically Honduras. It was a revelation how difficult it was to get a full picture (if I even ever did) of what was going on there at the time.** I discovered that it takes a concerted effort, looking at multiple information sources, to learn about just one issue. Not many of us have the time to do this. No wonder we tend to rely on one-note news sources and take black-white positions on certain issues.

Bayou Corne, Louisiana. July 2014.

Lesson #2: We humans have messy motivations. In the abstract, we want a clean environment or human/civil rights or peace  ... but when it comes to our own wallets and back yards, then the abstract ideals become more difficult to sustain. Heck, even within altruistic communities, there are competing interests. My past work with trails showed me that hikers, cyclists, equestrians, and OTR vehicle riders all love trails and the Great Outdoors - but they don't necessarily agree on how to build, maintain, share, and use trails.

Bayou Corne, Louisiana. July 2014.

Sinkhole. Bayou Corne, Louisiana. July 2014.

Sinkhole. Bayou Corne, Louisiana. July 2014.

Two people look through the same window, and see different things

To wit, below is a loving, lovely visual story of Bayou Corne, filmed in 2014, two years after the sinkhole opened in 2012:

The same woman, "rainbeaudais," published this video a year earlier, in May 2013, titled Sad, Ironic Contrasts Seen at Bayou Corne Today:

When I moved to South Louisiana and readied myself for a visit to Bayou Corne, my internet research revealed that "Rainbeaudais" spoke with a strong voice in the telling of the Bayou Corne story.

When I entered the tiny village that is Bayou Corne, I saw a newish-looking subdivision of houses that lined the bayou. I wondered if this gathering of houses was where Rainbeaudais might live, so I turned in to check it out. Incredibly, I saw a house that looked just like hers, and I parked my car, got out, mustered together some chutzpah, and knocked on her door.

She kindly allowed me to go out on her back deck with her and answered a few questions.

The serene beauty of the bayou was just as she depicted it in her videos. Off her deck, or maybe her neighbor's, I saw this basket of fish - and a snake! - freshly pulled from the water.

Bayou Corne, Louisiana. July 2014.

Bayou Corne, Louisiana. July 2014.

It's hard to look at such a bucolic scene, such as off of Rainbeaudais' deck, seemingly flush with animal and plant life, and reconcile that with unseen toxins or structural instability below our feet.

Back in mid-2014, when I visited Bayou Corne, Rainbeaudais was confident enough in the safety of her village that she took a huge financial risk. Before the Big Suck, Rainbeaudais owned a lot next to her current home. When her neighbor fled the town, Rainbeaudais bought her neighbor's house with the full understanding that she waived any future right to claim damages if Bayou Corne should sink, explode, or succumb to lethal gases. ... At that time, villagers were still under an evacuation order.

When making such colossal decisions like this, what data do we use?

Way back in the day, when I worked with a couple of agencies that touched on the lives of young single mothers, I read some research on how said women chose a childcare provider. Above all else - with costs and location being equal - it was the vibe, the impressions, the emotive gut instinct that drove the mothers' decisions. Did the potential caregiver seem kindly? Did she look nurturing? Did she feel safe?

Then there's the day I touristed to the Trinity Site - ground zero of an atomic bomb - and saw how normal everything appeared. Hundreds of folks troop to this site twice-yearly. I still have the question I had then: 
"... [I experienced] some cognitive dissonance in the low levels of radiation that exist there today (apparently) versus what we've had pounded into our psyches about how many eons it takes for radiation from an atomic bomb to go to 'safe' levels. Does this mean I take away a sense that atomic weapons are "not that bad"? No. The take-away is my inability to reconcile two alleged realities."

A few months after BP's Deep Horizon spill, I met a friend for lunch. She averred that all of the hoopla about the spill damage was over-wrought and it had unfairly harmed the Gulf Coast's tourism industry and put oil-rig workers out of work.

In the case of the Bayou Corne Sinkhole, gosh, how does a resident make an informed decision about whether or not to stay or go (or, if complying with the early-on mandatory evacuation, to return)? To hold on to one's property or participate in a buy-out?

Being how it's Louisiana - with its willingness to sacrifice fellow Louisianans who are low-income, low-influence, and low-visibility - and which is the butt of jokes about the pervasiveness of its government corruption - would I believe what officials tell me about the risk of danger to myself and my family? Were they over-playing the risk? Or under-playing it?

Once the immediate shock of the Bayou Corne's suck was over, could I believe what my eyes told me about the apparent return to my heretofore idyllic paradise, with the fish still biting, the birds still swooping gracefully, the water still rippling peacefully, the sky still blue, the trees still shading and sheltering?

I couldn't see what was - and wasn't - below my feet. Couldn't feel what was - or wasn't - there. Who could I trust to tell me the truth?

What would I do?

I don't know. 

Current status of the Bayou Corne Sinkhole

The June 13, 2016, Times-Picayune article, Bayou Corne Sinkhole Now Covers 35 More Acres But More Stable, pretty much says it all in the title. But to offer some more details: 
A massive sinkhole that went viral in 2013 swallowing trees in Assumption Parish and forcing more than 300 residents from their homes has quieted down as officials slowly allow residents to come home. ... Previous tests have indicated that there are no further voids that would cause another hole in the area. Other scientific modeling has suggested the hole will not reach the nearby highway or the Bayou Corne waterway. .... it's that stability that has led the parish government to slowly drop mandatory evacuation orders to voluntary evacuations.

 An October 2016 update, as reported in the Baton Rouge Advocate, offers heartier reassurances: 
More than four years since the Bayou Corne sinkhole appeared, Assumption Parish officials declared on Friday that the once growing, burping, oily swampland hole that made worldwide headlines had settled down enough to no longer pose a risk to the public.

Below is the trailer of a movie about the Bayou Corne Sinkhole - and the community - released in 2016, titled The Forgotten Bayou:

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