HOUMA—Inside a sprawling command post in southern
Louisiana, The Blob is everywhere.
It stains the many maps tacked to white walls. Computer monitors beam satellite images of it floating in the Gulf of Mexico, a magenta mass that looks more like an island than the colossal oil slick that it is. It sometimes changes shape on these screens, or breaks off into bits and pieces, but The Blob itself never vanishes.
Coast Guard Capt. Roger Laferriere oversees this command center, coordinating the unprecedented cleanup of oil off of the Louisiana coast. There are other posts like it in Mobile, Ala., and Miami, but none has more manpower, equipment - or more of The Blob, as Laferriere and his staff have christened their enemy - than this base inside what once was a BP training facility for offshore oil production.
On any given day, some 40,000 people are working all along the Gulf Coast to track where the oil is headed, lay protective boom, skim what they can and clean shorelines; nearly half of them are under what is known as the Houma Incident Command Post.
Some are analysts who sit in darkened rooms at the BP warehouse, feeding satellite data into computerized maps that show where the oil is moving, what marshes have already been boomed and what areas skimmers are toiling.
Others - many of them shrimpers and fishermen turned cleanup contractors - work out of quaint docks converted into "forward operating bases," hitting the water after sunup to do the hands-on tasks necessary to contain and clear the oil. There's displaced boom to be repositioned. Torn boom to be picked up, brought to shore and repaired. Absorbent boom soaked through on one side that must be turned or swapped out.
The spilling may have stopped at least for now, but their work goes on. Before a new cap fitted onto the busted wellhead corked the leak this past week, anywhere from 92 million to 184 million gallons of oil had gushed into the sea. Somehow, it's got to be cleaned up.
Leading that effort for the Louisiana coastline is Laferriere, a man of boundless energy and confidence who holds a degree in environmental science and has worked any number of oil spills big and small - from Exxon Valdez to the post-Hurricane Katrina spills that dumped more than 8 million gallons.
Securing the leak does little to change his mission over the next weeks and months. "Even given that," he says, "we've still got a lot of oil on the water. We're going to continue to push forward until all the oil is removed and the people of Louisiana can get back to their way of life. We're going to be here until the end."
Laferriere's job is to not only coordinate efforts on the ground, but to meet with parish presidents, city councilmen and mayors, to answer their many questions, and to fend off criticism that not enough has been done to stop and capture the crude.
"Not enough" is something he's heard a lot since arriving in Louisiana on May 22, almost a month to the day after the Deepwater Horizon explosion. It may be a complaint that there's not enough boom, or not enough skimmers, or not enough boots on the ground to pitch in.
And so he's made it his job to explain to anyone who will listen just how this all works - which methods clean the most oil fastest and the many obstacles out there to getting the job done. One day it could be a thundercloud that shuts down work. The next, high waves that prevent vessels from skimming. Or a full moon that makes sea states even more challenging.
Coast Guard Capt. Meredith Austin is Laferriere's No. 2 and runs the daily operations of the command center.
"Normally when you do an oil spill response, you have a release of oil ... but at some point in the near term, the source stops and then you know: This is what I'm fighting. You've got to skim as much as you can and burn as much as you can, do protective booming and clean up what's on the beach. This one, you're doing that every day but you don't know when it's going to end" once and for all, she says. "We get up every day and say, `Who's the enemy today? What does the blob of oil look like today? Let's go attack it."'
The surface slick from the oil covered 2,700 square miles on Thursday - down sharply from its peak on June 14 but still an area slightly larger than Delaware, says Hans Graber, who has been tracking its movements via satellite imagery from the University of Miami's Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing. Although the heart of the slick has fluctuated with weather and the amount of oil coming out of the seafloor, Graber says 44,000 square miles of the Gulf have seen significant amounts of oil pass through.
Even if the cap holds and no more oil spills, Coast Guard officials say cleaning what's left of the oil offshore could take anywhere from several weeks to several months. Long-term restoration of soiled marshes and other affected areas could take years, depending on the extent of damage.
Barring bad weather, which itself can be a regular occurrence, the command post routine rarely changes: Mornings start with spotter flights to get a sense of where the oil is on any given day. While much of it remains amassed near the wellhead, other so-called streamers and ribbons have broken off and made their way into inlets such as Barataria Bay, forcing crews to constantly monitor the moving oil and shift resources as necessary.
Data integration teams update computerized maps to depict where the slick has spread and to help operations managers in Houma communicate with nine forward operating bases scattered across the coastal parishes to determine where skimmers and boom-tenders should focus their efforts. Weather forecasters keep an eye on storms and tides, to help decide whether it's an optimal day to burn some of the oil closest to the explosion site or use chemical dispersants to break it up.