This past June, journalist and University of Maine alumnus Ernest Scheyder spent 11 days in Louisiana covering the BP oil leak for Reuters — an assignment he describes as taxing, uplifting and provocative. Transocean Inc.’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 and releasing millions of gallons of crude oil in to the Gulf of Mexico before being capped in late July.
“Witnessing history being made, such as this, is one reason I love journalism; writing and crafting stories about the people affected is another,” Scheyder says of his breaking news coverage.
Scheyder has been writing for Reuters since 2009. After graduating from UMaine with an English degree in 2006, he received a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and worked at The Wall Street Journal and The Associated Press. At Reuters, he typically covers the stock moves, shareholder intrigue and insider dealings at chemical and energy companies, including DuPont and Dow Chemical.
Scheyder shared his perspective on the people and the place affected by the tragedy.
For such a tragedy to befall this area of the world was either a cosmic joke or blind coincidence; residents of Plaquemines Parish, a county just south of New Orleans, are only now recovering from Hurricane Katrina, five years out.
In numerous ways, though, residents of the coastal communities south of New Orleans reminded me of Maine: rough around the edges, but kind and caring underneath.
I stopped by a farm stand one day, looking to interview the owner about how the spill had affected her business. While Susan Becner was wistful about her missed business, she kept a positive attitude.
“I know things will get better,” she said with a smile as she packaged pickled eggs for customers. She and everyone else I met in Louisiana do not want deepwater drilling to stop. The industry brings in millions of dollars each year to the area’s restaurants, hotels and shops. If drilling rigs left for Nigeria or Venezuela, so would workers’ money.
Flying with photographer Sean Gardner over the Chandeluer Islands, where local Louisiana officials wanted to build barrier islands to protect from the oil’s onslaught, I could see for miles a light sheen that was moving progressively closer to the marshland. Huge sand dredges – giant pumps that suck sand off the ocean floor and literally make new island by re-depositing the sand – sat idle after federal officials ordered them shuttered to fully study what they would do to the environment.
That had locals fuming.
The Rev. Gerry Stapleton isn’t on the front lines of the oil spill. He doesn’t lay boom, an absorbent material that sops up oil. He doesn’t know the difference between casing cement and hydrate crystals. But what he does know is how to reach out to those affected, and interviewing him was a highlight of my time in Louisiana.
“We put our businesses and lives back together after Katrina,” he told me. “We will do the same in this crisis.”
In many ways, Stapleton is emblematic of the type of person living in Louisiana: bold, brave, kind, and resilient. After Hurricane Katrina literally washed his church away in Port Sulphur, La., he went on a global fund-raising drive to rebuild.
“Every crisis gives up an opportunity to define who we are. Even if our government and BP abandon us, God will not abandon us,” he told me.
Image Description: Ernest Scheyder