Reflections on the Oil Spill from Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger

Written by Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger, minister of First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, on May 5, 2010.  Cross-posted at

The explosion on the high-tech oil rig leased by BP nearly 50 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico happened April 20th. Immediate word was that there had been casualties, but some workers had been able to evacuate in time and were saved. Local news showed footage of the fire in the Gulf, and anxious relatives being ferried to a hotel near the airport to await their loved ones — or word that their beloveds were among the lost. More reports later focused on the funerals of the men (they were all men — for whatever reason, oil rigs are not known to be havens of gender-inclusivity).

Announcements were made on April 21st or 22nd (hard to remember now) that the oil well was being capped as it blew, so (the announcement, presumably from BP, said) there would be minimal leakage of oil into the waters of the Gulf. As I packed for my New York trip on April 23rd, the news seemed to be changing. There WAS a spill, but it wasn’t too bad. When I arrived in New York on the night of April 24th, the media was in full retreat from earlier stories. There WAS a spill, and it WAS bad, it was very bad indeed. It might even be the worst ever.

Storms in the Gulf not only dropped rain on Jazz Fest revelers, it sent the oil slick moving rapidly toward the ravaged Louisiana coast. By the second Jazz Fest weekend, April 29-May 2, some folks in Irish Bayou and even Slidell, claimed they could smell it on the wind. (It may or may not have been the reason that the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin gave to Jazz Fest officials about canceling her set, even though her tour bus was already in New Orleans, and nobody was claiming to be able to smell it from there.)

Folks at Jazz Fest lined up in record numbers to get raw oysters, joking sardonically that it could our last raw oysters for 5-10 years. (If the seedbeds of Louisiana oysters are disturbed, new seed oysters will have to be obtained after the beds are cleaned and then carefully nurtured. it would take between 5 and 10 years to be able to harvest from such new beds.) While they made remarks steeped in disaster-humor, their eyes were alternately angry and sad. Hearing that Halliburton contractors had been involved on the rig, one man said, “Let Cheney pay for the clean-up.” The lead singer for Pearl Jam, on stage at the Fest, suggested that the children of BP executives spend their summer breaks working on the clean-up. He was wildly cheered.

Whether you live here in poor belle NOLA or anywhere else around the country, I know that all of us have been deeply affected emotionally and spiritually from this disaster, and the slow pace and inadequate scope of clean up. I know that all of us, young and old, well-off and struggling, want to do something, but we don’t know what. We know something of what this disaster means in terms of our lives and livelihoods and delicious food and our beautiful marshlands and fragile coastal areas, and the strange and wonderful wild things that live in those places, but there is still a mystery in terms of what happens next, what might happen next.

Here are some concrete ideas for things that can be done, right now, right away, to have a positive effect on the spill clean-up. And if there are those of you who read this who know of other things we can do, please do let me know so I can help spread the word.

#1 It is well-known that the containment booms for oil spills are filled with waste materials like hair, fur, and old nylons. (Check-out the YouTube video clip entitled “Hair Soaks Up Oil Spills“.) Collections of hair clippings from barbers and salons and fur clippings from pet groomers would be of tremendous assistance. A local hotel is working with a local environmental organization, Matter of Trust, to coordinate donations of old hosiery, pantyhose, stockings, clipped hair, and fur from pet groomers; that is the Ritz Carlton Hotel, 921 Canal St., NOLA 70130, 504-670-2817. Packages must be clearly labeled, such as “PANTYHOSE” or “HAIR CLIPPINGS”. If you live in New Orleans, you can drop off labeled packages of your old stockings right at the valet entrance of the hotel. You can also call your hair salon and dog groomer and request that they save all hair and fur for this important cause.

#2 If you are financially able, you can contribute to help the people who are hurt most. A fund has been set up by the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund, to collect money to benefit local communities (in Plaquemines, St. Bernard, and lower Jefferson parishes) most adversely affected by the disaster, who are mostly poor/economically marginal, Islenos, Vietnamese, or African American). Donations can be made online, and more information gathered, at

#3 If you are able and willing to, you can volunteer to help.  In-person volunteers can register with the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, or through the Sierra Club. Recovery from this, as from Katrina, will be a marathon, not a sprint. We will need a lot of help for quite some time to come.

#4 If you live or visit near the Louisiana-Mississippi coast, and need to report damaged wild life or shoreline, these are the numbers to call: for oiled wildlife 866-557-1401; for damaged coastal areas 800-440-0858.

#5 Write and call your elected officials at the federal level. Demand clear procedures for emergencies in the Gulf. Demand accountability for when inevitable accidents happen. Demand immediate federal aid for the coast line, the wild life, and the human communities affected by such disasters.

Finally, we can all pray/meditate/send good thoughts when gathered in our faith communities. We can support and comfort each other in our rage and grief over this new disaster. We can use the work of our hands and the power of our minds to make this better and prevent its recurrence.

To all of you out there standing in solidarity with us in South Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Explosion in the Gulf

Rev Jim VanderWeeleRev. James VanderWeele is minister of Community Church Unitarian Universalist New Orleans and serves on the board of the interfaith community organization Congregations Acting Together.

The world has once again gasped at news from the Gulf, not the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Mexico. We are not threatened by a hurricane this time but the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon. This rig was at the cutting edge of oil-drilling technology. It drilled, then capped, then drilled again. Its floating platform was held in place by a global positioning system.

Dawn of day one
The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on fire

Transoceanic (BP’s renter) was closing a drilling site, preparing to move. There are many safeguards, and all are used before shut-off valves are needed. But this fire surged swiftly. No alarm buttons were pushed. I see a swoo-ooo-ooosh of FIRE, rising 300 feet about the water, …in an instant.

Life was lost; human life on the front end; fish, animals, birds, plants, and Gaia are waiting in line.

Many local groups, including the Sierra Club, called for volunteers. Weather kept relief efforts in the bay for several days. Fishermen, who risk losing their fishing grounds, shrimp and oyster beds, await BP (and the Coast Guard) for approval of a local plan. They want to place booms across the river mouths. Barrier islands (and a few of them still remain) will blunt the impact of the oil on the swamps and marshes further inland but any oil that enters a stream will spread to the interconnecting waterways, channels, and canals emptying into the stream. The current ask (from those who stand to lose their livelihood) is for the fuel (and BP should have some of that) to initiate their coastal protection effort.

At our Sunday morning worship service we have a time for joys and sorrows. Our first three candles were lit for those who died, for the people trying to contain the slick, and for all the creatures that live on our coastline. We are deeply concerned, mostly for our coastline, for the fish and birds that live there, and for all who live in the entire Gulf Coast region. Part of our angst is tied up with governmental/bureaucratic/corporate red tape, colored by the fact that President Bush was ineffective during and after Katrina–while the people suffered. Now we wait to see if President Obama’s administration will manage the clean up effectively.

Early in the morning of the second day of the fire

For several days we thought this was Louisiana light crude, a thinner oil that breaks down quickly when exposed to sunlight and bacteria. But a weekend report said one chemical test showed it may be raw material for asphalt—a heavier oil, impervious to chemical and natural degradation. Yet, other reports say chemicals are being shot by robot subs into the oil’s flow a mile below the surface. These chemicals have broken up the oil, causing a reduced residue to fall to the ocean floor, minimizing the amount of oil that reaches the surface, or so says the latest report.

Any hope for a minimal environmental impact was shattered this morning (May 3rd). Jellyfish and sea turtles have washed up on the Mississippi shores. Some of these turtles are on the verge of extinction. This may be the final straw for them. Oil is already in the coastal currents. This current carries water down the western edge of Florida. The Florida Keys may soon see oil on their beaches.

Oil on the ocean surface burns

One more thought. The plates of our planet are moving. Earthquakes and volcanoes may well be a signal. Yet we puncture Gaia’s epidermis with our most modern syringes. We drain out our earth’s fluids then throw it into our atmosphere and seem to expect our eco-system will not respond. May this be a warning, a warning we will remember, long after the news-cycle has turned, long after the Gulf returns to health.

Coverage of yesterday’s FEMA hearing

On Tuesday, we offered a round-up of articles on housing recovery in the Gulf Coast in advance of Wednesday morning’s Congressional hearing on FEMA housing. Last night, the Associated Press posted coverage of the hearing, which began with the words: “The government could end up repeating mistakes seen after Hurricane Katrina without a better plan for housing people after a catastrophe . . . .”

One of the main problems that FEMA officials pointed out included that the housing they provide is meant to be temporary– and without federal or state governments stepping in to facilitate peoples’ return to permanent housing, FEMA is having to provide a service it simply isn’t equipped to provide.

“Our business is sheltering … we do not have the solution for how we re-establish housing stock,” said Craig Fugate, Director of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).

FEMA is also restricted from spending a significant amount to repair permanent housing. According to Richard Skinner, FEMA’s Inspector General, FEMA is “hamstrung by federal laws limiting its role in the broader rebuilding effort.”

FEMA surely has its share of responsibility in the problems that have followed Katrina and Rita, but their testimony at yesterday’s hearing makes it clear that rebuilding and long-term recovery is a greater task than they were ever equipped to handle.

For more details, read Watchdog: FEMA still lacks housing plan.

Gulf Coast news round-up + FEMA hearing

The House Committee on Homeland Security will hold a hearing on FEMA Housing: An Examination of Current Problems and Innovative Solutions tomorrow, Wednesday July 8, at 10 am EST in Washington, D.C. The purpose of the hearing is to receive testimony on FEMA’s strategy and plans to provide displaced individuals interim housing options in the wake of future catastrophes. Footage will be available on the House website, where an icon for live/recorded video of the hearing is located at the bottom of this page.

With regard to housing recovery in the Gulf Coast generally, a coalition partner at the National Low-Income Housing Coalition compiled this list of recent news articles:


· FEMA estimates that 1,800 individuals or families in Montgomery County, Texas, with unmet needs after Hurricane Ike just began to provide the needed resources.

· The City of Galveston expects to get the money for its housing recovery plan by August. Unfortunately there are lingering concerns that many people who could have received the assistance already rebuilt their homes, through a variety of resources, and will now not qualify for the funds.


· A Biloxi news piece talks about the progress of two rebuilding programs, “My Home My Coast’ at Gulf Coast Renaissance Corp and ‘Coming Home Collaborative’ with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation. The two programs combined have already received more than 5,000 applications.

· George County supervisors approved “a comprehensive plan … to guide development for the next two decades” last week. The process to develop the plan began after Katrina when officials learning they could not stop FEMA trailer parks from being located in areas that they or neighbors did not want them.


· The Louisiana Weekly reports that HANO extended the deadline for people on the pre-Katrina public housing waiting list to respond to requests as to whether they would like to stay on the list. The deadline for such notification had been last Friday, June 26, but has been extended to this Friday, July 3.

· More construction begins on homes to be built on former C.J. Peete site in New Orleans.

· This Times-Picayune piece talks about the progress on the long-delayed Louisiana Katrina cottages.


· Footage of Bill Johnson, ADECA, testifying before the House Financial Services Committee concerning the Economic Disaster Area Act of 2009, which proposes a new set-aside of CDBG funds for states declared economic disaster areas by the President. Around the 59 minute mark, Rep. Waters responds to Johnson’s ask for more disaster CDBG funds agreeably and, though she doesn’t offer anything concrete, suggests that the committee revisit the unmet Gulf Coast housing needs and what has happened with previous funding.


· USA Today reports on the thousands of families still living in FEMA-provided temporary housing post-Katrina/Rita.

· Recently the UN special rapporteur on racism spoke before the UN Humans Rights Council about recommendations for how the US can tackle ongoing racial discrimination. Discriminatory treatment of people affected by Katrina, especially with regard to permanent housing situations, was included in that testimony. See the UN recommendations.

· An MIT team transformed a FEMA travel trailer into a mobile community garden. The “Armadillo” is now on a cross country trip.

· NAACP urges Congress to pass the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act.

FEMA Is At It Again!! Please Act NOW to Stop FEMA Trailer Evictions

Just when you think things couldn’t get worse in New Orleans, and when federal legislation for recovery in the Gulf Coast has finally been introduced, FEMA announces trailer evictions.
Please read the post below from the Katrina Information Network. And if you haven’t already, please urge your Representative to co-sponsor the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act through the UUA’s online action campaign and/or by collecting signatures from your congregation to mail to your Representative.
FEMA has announced that tomorrow, on May 30, 2009, it will act to evict thousands of residents from FEMA trailers in the Gulf States in spite of the fact that these residents have had limited support and lots of barriers in their efforts to find permanent housing. Please act now to stop this travesty.
Mr. Ernest Hammond is a case in point. Hammond, a 70 year old, former New Orleans homeowner, could not get financial help from Louisiana’s Road Home program for his triplex since the housing structure was ineligible for a grant. To help himself, Mr. Hammond has collected almost $10,000 in aluminum cans but that won’t even begin to cover the costs to rebuild his home in the 7th Ward. His FEMA trailer is keeping him off the street while he struggles to return home.
Mr. Hammond is one of thousands of families living in FEMA trailers because they are either caught in a web of deeply flawed, bureaucratic home repair grant programs, a victim of all too rampant contractor fraud or simply priced out of a rising rental markets where affordable housing is being demolished or gentrified.

No one chooses to live in a FEMA trailer, but it is better than no home at all. Evicting residents without providing access to safe, permanent housing will only lead to homelessness and further destabilize families.
Please take a minute to click and send an email or make a call to let the Administration know that evictions are a bad idea.

Tell President Obama and Congress to extend the May 30th FEMA trailer program deadline!

Say NO to FEMA’s decision to forcibly evict residents from trailers!

The Facts:

  • Nearly 5,000 FEMA trailers continue to provide housing to residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina
    • 2,800 FEMA trailers in Louisiana, with 1, 000 trailers located in Orleans Parish, LA
    • 2,000 FEMA trailers in Mississippi
  • Most FEMA trailer occupants are elderly and/or disabled persons in desperate need of effective support and case management services to stabilize their housing and wellbeing.
  • FEMA trailer occupants are displaced homeowners and renters still struggling to rebuild their homes or secure affordable housing after Katrina and Rita.

Hold our elected leaders to their promise of Gulf Region recovery, and demand equal protection under the same human rights policy that the U.S. government applies to displaced persons in other countries.

Tell FEMA to provide an extension to all homeowners and renters living in FEMA trailers to allow them sufficient time to repair their homes and/or find alternative housing.

Additional time would allow:

  • Louisiana homeowners to appeal denials of Road Home grants, or go to a Road Home closing.
  • Mississippi homeowners to be matched with available Katrina cottages that sit idle.
  • Renters more time to obtain rental assistance or other permanent affordable housing.

Call the Obama Administration and FEMA to demand action now! Tell our government not to carry forward yesterday’s short-sighted policies and to apply the same human rights standards to displaced persons in the Gulf States. Demand a stop to the FEMA trailer deadline and the guarantee of safe, permanent housing in the Gulf Region.

  • HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan (202) 708-0417
  • DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano (202) 282-8000; (202) 282-8495
  • FEMA Administrator Fugate (202) 646-2500

Ready or Not, Katrina Victims Lose Temporary Housing‘, The New York Times, 05-8-09

Residents keep nervous eye on trailers‘, The Times-Picayune, 05-03-09

Action Alert – Support the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act!

Yesterday, Rep. Lofgren introduced the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act, H.R. 2269, into Congress. This bill would create 100,000 prevailing wage jobs and training opportunities for local and displaced gulf Coast workers in restoring infrastructure and the coastal environment with green building technologies.

Here are a few ways you can build support for H.R. 2269:

Sign up for UU Gulf Coast Updates (a joint project of Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalist (GNOUU), New Orleans Rebirth Volunteer Center, Unitarian Universalist Association, and Unitarian Universalist Service Committee) to receive bimonthly emails with more alerts & resources like this.

Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?

I do. I just returned from a week of dancing the night away to funk and zydeco, from eating my weight in gumbo, boiled crawfish and jambalaya, and from listening to some of the best jazz I’ve ever heard in my life. I just returned from a week of seeing entire neighborhoods still empty and destroyed nearly four years after the events that caused this damage. I just returned from a week of hard work and learning in communities that have been traumatized fragmented and displaced. My teachers were people who come from some of the oldest and most culturally rich neighborhoods in this country and who are committed to reconstructing their lives and their city. My teachers were the strong residents of New Orleans and those who are still working against many odds to help them come home.

The work of repairing damage caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita continues, even though it’s no longer in the media spotlight. I traveled with a group from All Souls Church, Unitarian that has worked for the past three years with local organizations, including the New Orleans Rebirth Volunteer Center housed in the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans and the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal. I heard from New Orleanians who appreciate knowing that the rest of their country has not forgotten about them. They wanted me to come home and tell everyone I know what I saw, and that at least, is something that I can do for them.

I started the week at a community center in Treme, one of the oldest neighborhoods in New Orleans and the main neighborhood of free people of color during the antebellum period. Treme remains an important center of the city’s African-American and Créole culture, and many musicians live and work there. It was also the location of a large public housing development that was dismantled after Katrina, even though it was left undamaged by the storms. The people of Treme have not experienced the same level of media attention and support as those from the lower ninth ward, and many houses in the neighborhood, though still standing, are uninhabitable.

My crew worked to help paint a community center kitchen, and although our counterpart representing the local organization working on the center was pleased with our work, I couldn’t help but notice the mold and peeling water damaged walls that would not be remedied by a coat of paint. The community center in Treme is one of 20 damaged by Katrina. Three of those centers are currently functioning, but they have by no means resumed providing all of their pre-storm services. I watched dozens of people file in for the meal after a funeral, an almost daily occurrence according to neighborhood residents. Looking down from the second floor I saw the pool where area kids used to have swimming lessons waiting to be restored.

(All Souls Church Intern Minister Walter Leflore stands outside of the Treme Community Center)

The rest of my week was spent at a community garden that’s being built by a nonprofit called . In response to people’s expressed needs for fresh vegetables, (there are no grocery stores currently open in the lower ninth ward) lowernine has leased a plot of land where they plan to grow vegetables to be sold at a farmers market and distributed to community members in the neighborhood. As we worked to build a tool shed, planting and the irrigation setup were being finalized, and the garden should be producing food within a couple of months. You can learn more and stay updated about its progress on the garden’s blog and read more about what’s happening in Holy Cross, another neighborhood where some members of our group helped to rebuild homes.

The work is far from done and the devastation from the 2005 hurricane season continues to affect peoples’ lives in New Orleans and many other communities all over the Gulf Coast. Please follow the links in this post and sign up for Gulf Coast Updates, a joint project of Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalists (GNOUU), New Orleans Rebirth Volunteer Center, Unitarian Universalist Association, and Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, by clicking the link above, entering your information and checking the box next to Gulf Coast. We can all contribute to the work of Gulf Coast rebuilding and recovery.

Help the UU churches of New Orleans rebuild – Give to GNOUU

In August of 2005, flood waters from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita filled the homes and worship spaces of hundreds of Unitarian Universalists in the New Orleans area.

Three years later, repairs to First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans are still incomplete.

North Shore Unitarian Universalist Society needs funding to minister to affected members and re-grow their membership.

And in August, Community Church of New Orleans was forced to raze the remnants of their building due to revised FEMA regulations. Now the Community Church will have to rebuild their worship space from the ground up.

These three congregations have joined together to form Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalists, GNOUU–pronounced “guh-new”). GNOUU’s goal is to raise 2.7 million dollars over the next three years to support the rebuilding of their churches and ministries. Currently, they are over 200,000 dollars short of reaching the first million.

This holiday season, please remember our extended UU family in the Gulf Coast, and show the kind of support that you would like to receive if your congregation was struck by disaster.

Make a donation to GNOUU in honor of a family member or a church friend, or challenge yourself to donate a certain amount each month and set up a recurring donation.

If you can’t afford to give a financial gift, consider participating in a service trip with The Rebirth Center, a volunteer service project stewarded by GNOUU.

Photo from

Trouble the Water brings Katrina survivors’ story to big screen

Sunday night I went to the theatre to see Trouble the Water, a new film by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal. Lessin and Deal produced Bowling for Columbine, and directed and produced Fahrenheit 9/11. But Trouble the Water is different from both of these: It spends more time zoomed in on the subjects of the film–Kimberly and Scott Roberts, a young, married black couple, and their neighbors and family–and doesn’t worry as much about hitting the audience over the head with the political implications of each setback they experience. And Kimberly and Scott do experience a number of setbacks.

The film begins with footage recorded by Kimberly before and directly after Hurricane Katrina hit. A lot of the shots gave me the same queasy feeling that watching The Blair Witch Project from the front row gave me a decade ago.

Through the bumpiness and the blurriness, the movie gives insight into what people were feeling when Katrina landed. Kimberly interviews her neighbors before the storm hits, and later records the water rising. She turns the camera on when she and her family are trapped in the attic, and later films a neighbor setting out to rescue folks from their houses.

Some reviewers felt that the rest of the movie paled in comparison to the storm at the beginning. But it was the story of putting life back together afterwards that, for me, was the most thought-provoking.

After the storm, someone else takes over filming, and we see the Roberts at a Red Cross shelter, trying to track down their relief money to start over. I won’t give away what happens from there, but I will say that the ending is a little more sweet than it is bitter–but just barely. You wind up feeling pretty confident that Kimberly and Scott are going to make it, but the amount of injustice surrounding their experience is almost overwhelming.

The film is an excellent piece to spark conversations on poverty, race, the media, family, the criminal justice system, government responsibility . . . the list goes on. With a running time just around an hour and a half, this is a great movie to spend an evening watching and discussing in a group.

Trouble the Water‘s website also offers a great assembly of organizations rebuilding and offering relief in the Gulf. For some behind-the-scenes information, check out an August 22nd Democracy Now interview with producers Lessin and Deal, by Amy Goodman.

Updated actions & resources for Gulf Coast justice on

You can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time. ~ Pat Schroeder

As Hurricane Gustav dissipates, Hannah moves towards Haiti, and Ike gathers strength, worry & concern can be channeled through education, action, reflection, and outreach.

The Take Action and Resources pages of the Gulf Coast Social Justice section of have been updated just this morning. Take a look for related legislation, new useful data, and ways to get involved in the continued work of rebuilding from Hurricanes Katrina & Rita.

Take Action

In case you missed last week’s post, don’t forget to check out the brand-new Gulf Coast Updates. Updates are a joint project of four UU organizations engaged in Gulf Coast rebuilding & recovery. Read the inaugural edition released last week, with contributions from the Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalists (GNOUU), New Orleans Rebirth Volunteer Center, Unitarian Universalist Association, and Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

Read the first edition of Gulf Coast Updates from 8-28-08
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