Skip to main content

As darkness fell Saturday night along the Gulf coast of the United States, where federal and state officials have swooped in to prepare for a looming disaster, residents were asking one question: where's the oil?

In Venice, Louisiana, a tiny fishing community at the tip of a thin strip of land stretching south from New Orleans, there's none to be seen.

It hasn't deterred preparations for the worst. Anglers are barred from fishing in their best spots, though they haven't seen many slicks.

Captains hired by American broadcasters to find the Louisiana-bound oil couldn't track it down.

And up the road, in Fort Jackson, home of the area's bird-rescue operation, volunteers had but a lone, unnamed tenant, whose wings were long ago washed of toxic crude.

In Venice, so far, this is the oil spill that wasn't.

Officials warned that if strong winds kept up, it was only a matter of time before the oil slicks hit Louisiana. Where they'd hit, however, remained unclear.

In the meantime, life carries on in the tiny community laid out along a causeway that runs parallel to the Mississippi River.

Crumbling buildings and derelict boats along the road still serve as reminders of when Hurricane Katrina struck here five years ago, sinking the community under several feet of water.

Now, as locals continue to recover, they face disaster once more.

"They're not upset until they know it's a done deal," said electrical worker John Chain, speaking as he and friends boiled crawfish on a houseboat along the Mississippi River Saturday evening. "These people have had hard knocks their entire life."

Orange inflatable booms continue to be laid out across the shores of Louisiana, in anticipation of the arrival of oil that's being pushed north by unseasonably strong winds. Locals dismiss this as foolish, saying they're being placed in water that's too deep by officials who don't know the area.

Officials, however, said it's hard to say where the oil is, or where it's going.

"The oil, as far as I know, is still off the land," said Keith Ibos, a biologist with the state's wildlife and fisheries service. "We don't know where the oil's going, we don't know what impact it's going to have.

"It's wait-and-see time."

Government officials have banned fishing along the east side of this stretch of land, in an area known as "zone one" and regarded for its strong fishing.

"That means where we fish 90 per cent of the time is off limits," said Brent Roy, a charter fisherman. Sitting in his boat at the marina, he said May and June are the high season at the Venice Marina, the self-described "fishing capital of the world." The oil spill is changing all of that.

"I had charters booked every day, and they're all cancelling," Mr. Roy said. "It's scary. This is how I make my living. It's all I do, and it's looking like we won't be able to do it."

While the oil is still offshore, some scrambled to take advantage.

"It's either go fight the oil or go out there and make some money," said Henry Hess, 51, as he loaded his shrimping boat with ice before departing for waters that remain open for fishing. He expects to earn only a fraction of what he would have while fishing in zone one.

"A lot of people, that's the only place they go," Mr. Hess said.

Coast Guard officials told the Associated Press that it's unclear how much oil is leaking from a damaged blowout valve about 1,500 metres underwater.

The valve has been leaking since the Deepwater Horizon well caught fire April 20 and sank two days later. Eleven people were killed.

On Wednesday, federal officials revised their estimates, saying 19,000 litres of oil were leaking each day - five times the original figure. University of Miami officials said Saturday that the spill's surface area continues to increase.

Officials at British Petroleum, which owned the lease to the now-destroyed rig that prompted the oil leak, are scrambling to replace the valve and reaching out for ideas to successfully do so.

Radio call-in shows obliged the request, and callers suggested crude plans ranging from a massive funnel to a heavy, concrete block meant to crush the malfunctioning valve.

The State of Louisiana prepared for the worst, with Governor Bobby Jindal saying he's "past the point of waiting for any clean-up plans from BP."

His government told residents to avoid oily water and encouraged anglers to apply for food stamps. They've also asked the federal government for temporary shelter and other emergency supplies.

For many who are unable to fish - and struggling with a post-disaster employment program still lumbering to life - that may be the only option.

"This is a disaster. You're looking at five, six, seven years before we start working again. What do we do in the meantime? Go on welfare, I guess. Food stamps," said Bernel Prout, 55, a shrimper who lost his boat in Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "This is our livelihood."

Aside from the economic fallout, experts continue to warn of the looming environmental threat the spill poses. Coastal Louisiana has about 10 wildlife and bird sanctuaries, all of them threatened.

A few minutes north of Venice, an animal-welfare group has set up a bird-care centre -- with the help of funding from BP.

But the centre has only one bird: a one-year-old male Northern Gannet rescued from the Gulf Friday.

Officials took the cleaned-up bird for a quick photo-op among about 50 journalists Saturday afternoon.

"Personally, I'm grateful [and]relieved that we only have one bird. It's given us time to set up the response," said Erica Miller, a veterinarian with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, which specializes in oil-spill response.

U.S. President Barack Obama is due to arrive Sunday, in a state he lost overwhelmingly in the 2008 election and appears to remain unpopular.

"He's going to fly over after 11 days? And finally send people?" said Peanut Drury, 33, whose family lost four of its six fishing boats in Katrina. After that disaster, the federal government was lambasted for a slow response.

"They said what happened in Katrina was never going to happen again," Mr. Drury said. "And Obama and them - nine days [to dispatch officials] It happened again."