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Film Expedition to the Bayou

National Geographic Emerging Explorer Roshini Thinakaran is documenting life in Buras, a small fishing community in Louisiana, in the aftermath of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This is her first blog post for Nat Geo News Watch.

By Roshini Thinakaran

In October 2010, I took a road trip from Washington, D.C. to a small town nestled deep in Louisiana’s bayou country. I was heading to Buras in the Plaquemines Parish, roughly 60 miles from where the BP Deepwater Horizon exploded in April 20, 2010, which is to date the worst human-induced environmental disaster to hit the United States of America.

And that was my reason for being there. I wanted to document how this small town was coping.

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My first trip to Buras was in late Sept 2010 for a scout. This small town is full of history but I went there to document how a fishing community was coping with the oil disaster, the biggest in US history.

Photo by Rocky Kistner at NRDC  

From Blog to Screen

Highway 11 leads right into the heart of Buras. There’s no welcome sign. Instead, an American flag about 30 feet high stands at the entrance along with the new water tower bearing the town’s name. An eerie feeling crept up on me as we drove through the main road–it was a virtual ghost town.

Five years ago Hurricane Katrina almost wiped Buras off the map, taking out its water tower, public library, high school and only grocery store. It seemed every other house was boarded or left in ruins, and for me reminiscent of post-conflict countries I had been in.

I first heard about Buras from Rocky Kistner, an investigative reporter working with NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) who has been based there since April and blogging about the communities effected by the oil disaster. He’s become a trusted member of the community for two reasons–he didn’t leave with the mainstream media blitz and he lives in his office. Fishermen from all over, including the Plaquemines Parish, Alabama and Mississippi, want Rocky to tell their stories.

Before my trip, Rocky warned that making plans is not how things are done in bayou, which was a bit unsettling. But after five months he’s become an expert or a fixer of sorts.

The first request he gets is: “I want to see where the oil is.” An out-of-work fisherman named Christian Delano was peddling an oil dissolvent that could save the Gulf, or so he claimed, and he wanted Rocky to write about it. Though he had his doubts, Rocky never says no.

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Photo by Anthony Moradi

It was a rough ride out to the explosion site south of Plaquemines Parish, and surprisingly we had company–lots of it. The Gulf was full of non-local contractors hired by BP to skim oil remains. It is a point of contention for the communities that know these waters better than anyone.

We didn’t have to travel far from the explosion site to find marsh grass drenched in oil. Christian then demonstrated the dissolvent which he said broke down the oil particles.

I wasn’t sold, but it made me think about how rich the Gulf was in natural resources and everyone wanted their piece of the pie.

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Roshini Thinakaran has lived and worked in some of the most fascinating places on Earth, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, and Dubai. She was selected as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and TED Global Fellow for her work examining the impact of war on women for Women at the Forefront, a multimedia project she began in 2006. Her current project focuses on a small Louisiana town coping with the oil disaster of 2010. Read more about Roshini and her work on her website Women at the Forefront. (http://roshinithinakaran.com/)

Read blog posts by Roshini Thinakaran.