The event that made 2010 what it was started with an ominous hiss of gas, followed by a flash of green, followed by a concussive boom, followed by what those who there would call a tornado of fire. The blowout preventer didn't work. The containment dome didn't work. The junk shot didn't work. The top hat didn't work. ¶ Spring became summer, and the oil kept gushing into the gulf. We are a country reared on the idea that tomorrow will be better than today. But as the oil kept coming, the economy kept reeling, and our visceral reactions to the tandem catastrophes turned into a series of rattled, out-of-character questions. ¶ When will it be fixed? When will it get better? ¶ Will it ever? ¶ Can't fix the economy. Can't stop the oil. ¶ This was the year of can't.
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BP's initial estimate after the April 20 accident was 1,000 barrels a day. Then it was 5,000. Then it was 12,000 and then 25,000 and then 40,000 and then 60,000, which is 2.5 million gallons a day, which is like another Exxon Valdez every four days.
The names of failed fix after failed fix conjured a cross between Capt. Nemo and Dr. Seuss, with their golf balls, their tire chunks, their impotent underwater robots.
Officials described the scenario in terms that must have sounded dispiritingly familiar to the legions of the long-term unemployed, the Great Recession's "forever jobless," the more than 6 million Americans who have not worked for at least six months.
"This spill, at this point, in my view," Adm. Thad Allen of the U.S. Coast Guard said in May on CNN, "is indeterminate."
Until the spill was stanched, a BP man told reporters, there would be only "infinite uncertainty."
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On the Weather Channel, PBS and MSNBC, the spill cam beamed from the depths of the bottom of the gulf the relentless, unending breach.
On beaches and in marshes, the oil encroached in patches and splotches and thick, gelatinous, toxic slop.
People wanted to help. People had to help. They collected hair for booms and hundreds of bottles of Dawn and called in all kinds of ideas to anybody who would listen. They talked of a boycott. But that wasn't so easy to do. The oil behemoth based in England was leasing a rig built in South Korea from a company headquartered in Switzerland.
The problem wasn't apathy. The problem was complexity.
Realization shifted to resignation.
"They began to imagine the unimaginable," Rick Bragg wrote in an essay in Garden & Gun, "that the whole damn thing would become a dead zone, a kind of poisoned lake, leaching into the Atlantic and beyond."
Water goes where it wants, and the oil in it, too, a reminder that we are not in control. This recessionary malaise, economists started to say, is "the new normal," meaning a shrinking middle class, meaning the reluctant acknowledgement of the reality of the downwardly mobile, meaning doing less with less, meaning lower expectations and a national psyche fundamentally changed.
A man stood on oiled Pensacola Beach in June and wiped his eyes.
"I don't know what to do," he told the Times. "I don't know if anybody knows what to do."
Three days later, Day 67 since the start of the spill, the governors of five gulf states asked people to pray.
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The gusher finally was capped on July 15. Day 86.
Consumer confidence in Florida had dipped in June, and then again in July, and the oil was one of the reasons. In August, new claims for jobless benefits went up after a few months of the smallest improvements, all over the country and of course here, too, in the particularly downbeat Sunshine State. The annual Labor Day report from Florida International University cited "few reasons for optimism about a recovery."
"A misery stew," said University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith.
In September, one poll said, nearly 60 percent of Americans felt "not good" or plain "bad" about the direction of the country's economy — up from 49 percent in May, right at the start of the spill. More than three-quarters of Americans, according to the poll, don't expect a return to their pre-recession lifestyle until 2012 at the earliest, if ever.
Some analysts expressed hope that consumer onslaughts on Black Friday and throughout the Christmas shopping season could provide the stalled economy with a necessary jolt.
Like men in hazmat suits walking around barefoot beachgoers, scooping up tar balls. Like skimming off the sheen. Like stimulus dollars spread like dispersant.
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The well was deemed dead for good on Sept. 19. The National Bureau of Economic Research said the very next day that the recession had ended in June 2009.
It was over.
It was not.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said just last week that there are still 6,400 workers and 360 vessels working on the spill. The full effects on life in the gulf and also on its shores won't be known for years. The Exxon Valdez disaster happened more than two decades ago. They're still finding oil in Alaska's Prince William Sound.
Roughly 17 percent of Americans are unemployed, underemployed or no longer even looking for work because they have given up. One in seven Americans lives in poverty right now. That's the highest number in half a century, and includes 2.7 million people in Florida, up from under 2 million as recently as 2006. A "jobless recovery" is no recovery at all.
When will it get better? When will it be fixed?
Will it ever?
Economists say maybe the second quarter of 2012, or maybe 2015, "if we're lucky," or maybe 2018.
Consider the name of the rig that blew. Deepwater Horizon. As far as the eye can see. That's the definition of horizon. Here, though, the horizon was under water, a mile down, all the way to the cold, dark, inhospitable ocean floor.
Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751.