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BP's Silent Disaster

By       Message Dahr Jamail     Permalink
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Social scientists and mental health professionals such as Podesta say psychological suffering continues to worsen two-and-a-half years after the spill. "We're seeing newly identified people," Podesta recently told Al Jazeera. "We're successfully dealing [with] some of the chronic mental illness, but are seeing an explosion of new clients."

Dr Janet Johnson, an associate professor of psychiatry at Tulane University, sees other long-term negative consequences as well. "People are on edge. People are feeling grief. I'm hearing of physical illnesses related to the oil, and people are worried about losing their home, their culture, their way of life."

Joe Yerkes, a cast-net fisherman from Destin, Florida, worked for five months on BP's clean-up operations. "Fishing was my whole life, so it was only natural for me to return to the livelihood I was so proud to be a part of," Yerkes told Al Jazeera. "Saltwater flowed through my veins and I wouldn't have traded my old life for anything in the world."

But after being exposed to BP's oil and dispersants while trying to fish, Yerkes began bleeding from his nose, ears and mouth. Like Gooding, he had to move from the Gulf to seek healthcare away from the coast, in order to protect himself from further exposure.

"I have spent the last three years trying to survive," he said of his ongoing health and economic problems. "Seven out of 10 on a pain scale is bearable and normal for me these days."

The combination of his failed health, inability to work, and economic stress has Yerkes in what he describes as "a vice grip." He said, "I've fought depression through this and the last six months have been particularly tough due to my economic situation," he said. "It's wearing on me every day. It's there, like a big giant weight on my chest."

Chronic effects

"What we find in our field when we study technological disasters, i.e., human made disasters, is that the impacts are chronic," Dr Anthony Ladd, a professor of sociology at Loyola University, told Al Jazeera. "They don't really end, whereas with a natural disaster people move through it once it ends."

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Anthony Ladd predicts chronic social problems related to the spill [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]

Sociologists point towards the drawn-out period of recovery and accompanying uncertainty that make technological disasters such as the BP oil disaster much more threatening to the health and welfare of affected people and communities along the Gulf Coast.

"With natural disasters, there is this sense that they will get through it and there is a light at the end of the tunnel," Ladd explained. "But with technological disasters you don't get that. It's a very different spiral into a malaise, into anxiety, into a feeling that there is no end in sight. You don't know when the impacts are going to stop."

Ladd, whose research focuses on environmental disasters' effects on communities, highlighted the negative impact of the ongoing litigation around the disaster.

"You don't know when the BP check is going to show up in the mail, if ever. You don't know when the Feds and the state are going to do their thing toward recovery. It's a chronic unending spiral of people into often deeper and deeper levels of anxiety, and research shows that one of the major sources of anxiety is the litigation process itself.

"So on top of everything else the disaster throws at you, then you have the decade-long experience of trying to litigate your way back to your economic livelihood, or trying to get some kind of economic compensation for what you've lost, and of course that never comes."

Podesta's work as a psychiatrist has uncovered countless examples of what sociologists have predicted would happen with this disaster. "The timeframe makes this worse. PTSD is usually one incident that results in hopelessness, helplessness and fear of death. It usually peaks then comes back down. But with the continued insults to hope and welfare, instead of dropping back down, it kind of step-ladders up with each insult."

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Ladd said he believes psycho-social recovery from the BP oil disaster will take decades...

"We need to stop thinking of this as a sprint and think of it as a marathon. This disaster and its impacts are going to go on for at least a decade and it could be more. It's hard to put into words the astronomical ways in which this disaster is likely to affect the Gulf Coast."

Meanwhile, Gooding's description of his life today reminds one of a war veteran trying to find a way to live with the scars.  "I'm watching everything I created over my life deteriorate," he said. "If you don't use your boat, it starts to break down. Everything I own is breaking down. I used to be someone who helped out the community, and now I'm someone who needs help from the community, and that's hard to adjust to. There's really nothing left to look forward to."

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DAHR JAMAIL He is author of the book Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq. Jamail's work has been featured on National Public Radio, the Guardian, The Nation, and The Progressive. He has received many (more...)

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