The lady and the water

By John DeSantis Senior Staff Writer , The Houma Courier
Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.

She stood back a little ways, behind where the Governor, Bobby Jindal, was talking about all the oil that is giving us nightmares and puts us into hurricane mode with no storm to cower from.

No wind, no rain, just a creeping mess that we know will hurt us even if it never touches us personally, because of what it will do to so many of our neighbors.

She listened as the Governor spoke with her long brown hair moving gently in the breeze and a very serious expression on her face.

And well there should be.

This Gulf that bears the brunt of what the earth belches out 50 miles offshore, it is more than just water to her. It is a companion and a study subject and at times has been a powerful adversary, and she knows probably more than anyone else behind that podium Friday what makes the Gulf tick, and what can make it very damaged as well.

But she is a scientist, Nancy Rabalais is, not a politician, not an activist, although some people might try to put her in that kind of box because of her work, because scientists who study the ocean by the very nature of their work are its advocates. She is executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and carries herself with modest and quiet dignity that doesn’t give a clue of how important she really is.

Rabalais is especially famous because she has done so much work for so many years on this thing called the dead zone. Scientists prefer to call it a hypoxic zone but you could never make a Stephen King title out of that, so dead zone is what sticks with most people.

For the uninformed, and nobody reading this should be that uninformed, the dead zone is the result of nutrients — namely fertilizer runoff and chemicals and other garbage — that make little ocean critters too small to see so happy that they multiply and multiply. And before you know it, the critters use up all the oxygen and the fish have to swim elsewhere.

But now it is not runoff from the Mississippi River that threatens the Gulf and its life, it is the oil, and it is coming terrifyingly close to the shores of Terrebonne Parish, to the marsh grass that protects us from the storms and makes homes for birds and other creatures, the nursery for our shrimp, the hiding places for crabs.

When the news conference was over she agreed to chat a bit, and talked of her life and career and how she feels about the Gulf — it’s still kind of like the way a doctor must feel for her patient, I guess — and a little bit about the oil.

She expresses understanding of the co-existence of the oil industry and this beautiful resource. And she is hoping for the best but bracing for the worst and hoping that, perhaps, nature will do what nature does and eventually heal itself.

What people might not have known was that just a couple of days ago she was out in the Gulf, in one of the fast-boats from LUMCON, and got a first-hand look and feel of what is happening out there.

“I am a hands-on scientist,” she said, not wanting anyone to mistake her for the kind that let students do all the work while they polish their nails.

She was with a four-person team and she and another dove into the water to check oxygen sensors, which is important for this dead-zone work. When she surfaced, one of the people on the boat was hollering that they all needed to get out of the water. Because while they were beneath it this nasty, gooey mess traveled over the surface, and Rabalais did not realize at first that she had popped up right through it.

She shrugged it off, noting that she had washed her hair and that was about the end of it.

And I forgot to ask her whether it was normal shampoo she used, or Dawn. But it had been a long day. I had work to do. And Nancy Rabalais’ work, made extra hard for some time to come as we try to figure out what damage the oil has done, has just now begun.

Senior Staff Writer John DeSantis

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