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AP Photojournalist Documents ‘Horror Show,’ Aftermath of Gulf Coast Oil Spill

April 21, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Associated Press photographer Gerald Herbert's work captured the environmental and personal toll of the Deepwater Horizen oil spill along the Gulf Coast. Herbert narrates a slide show of his images from the spill's early days and the subsequent struggle to clean up the coast and rebuild the coastal economy.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, the Gulf oil spill through the lens of a photojournalist.

Associated Press photographer Gerald Herbert spent the last year capturing images of the environmental and personal toll of the disaster.

He narrates this slide show of what he saw then and now.

GERALD HERBERT, Associated Press photographer: My name is Gerald Herbert, and I’m a photographer for the Associated Press based here in New Orleans.

Looking back over the last year, it’s been an exhausting process from the time the rig caught on fire to crisscrossing the region daily for months covering this story, looking for the first signs of oil approaching the shore, to the human response to the disaster, and then the human toll and the toll on the environment as well.

Along the way, I have even had the sad task of meeting and photographing family members of those who perished in the rig explosion. I have also met fishermen and shrimpers and restaurateurs and others who are economically impacted by this to this day.

Recently, I have been out deep-sea fishing. And I have been out for turtle releases by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. And each time I go out on the Gulf or fly over it, it’s really nice to see how blue and clear the water is.

And there are good indications that the water is clean and all the seafood that they’re testing is coming up clean. But, when you venture into Barataria Bay, which took a brunt of this damage from the oil, it’s really sobering and shocking to see.

I even revisited several locations that I photographed at the height of the oil spill’s impact, particularly the pelican rookeries. Pelicans had just come off the endangered species list not too long ago. And it was the first time anyone had seen oil directly impacting a pelican rookery.

And it was quite a horror show. Birds were swimming in oiled water. Oil was on the eggs in the nests. Oil was completely surrounding the island and lapping up onto the marsh grass that buffered the mangroves from the sea. And the mangroves are where the pelicans nest.

And one of the sad things is that the pelicans will nest exactly where they grew up in the very same spot. Brown pelicans are nonmigratory. They live here year-round. So, where there was mangrove, now it’s dead. Pelicans are now nesting on the bare earth. And the difficult part of that is that they’re exposed to any minor storm surges that might come along.

These storm surges can just overrun their nests with water and take them out. And there’s whole sections of this island that are not even recognizable to what it was before.

When the oil spill first happened, many of these people along the coast, they felt that this was going to be another Katrina, or that it would be worse than Katrina. And here we are, the first-year anniversary of this oil spill, and there’s no question that those words are ringing true right now, because the economy in the coastal communities has not picked up.

One crab fisherman that I talked to, Thomas Barrios, down in Golden Meadow, he’s having trouble finding crabs. He’s not sure if the crabs have moved around because there’s oil down on the bottom, or if it’s just a bad season. But it’s frightening to them to have to face another bad season and not knowing if their business is ever going to rebound.

Just a couple weeks ago, I flew out in a helicopter over the GPS coordinates of the Deepwater Horizon rig, where it sank, where the oil spill happened. And as you fly over it now, it’s just open blue sea. There’s nothing lingering that would tell that you that there was an oil spill there, and there’s nothing indicating that it’s a work site anymore, because it’s not.

But there’s no question there’s other aspects of this that are affecting people’s lives to this day and affecting the ecology to this day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That was Associated Press photographer Gerald Herbert, talking about documenting the Gulf oil spill over the past year.