After Much Bad News, Wary Welcome for the Good


Percy Baulden, a New Orleans firefighter, says that about a month ago he found himself coming down with an ailment that he has named “oil well fatigue.” The symptoms included a feeling of hopelessness and chronic irritation at the mention of “BP,” “Deepwater Horizon” and any combination of the usually innocuous terms “spill,” “containment” and “cap.”

So it would come as no surprise that Mr. Baulden reacted with skepticism and a shrug when he heard on local talk radio Thursday that BP had capped its runaway well, which had been spewing unabated in the Gulf of Mexico since an explosion on April 20.

“I’m tired of hearing about it, to be honest,” he said. “When they say ‘capped,’ does that mean ‘capped’?”

It took a day or so for Mr. Baulden, 29, to accept that what sounded like good news might actually be good news. “Now that I’m seeing more reports of it being stopped, I’m starting to believe it.”

Mr. Baulden was not alone in his delayed reaction. For many, the oil spill saga has been an incredibly long 87-day journey marked most memorably by dashed hopes (remember the “top hat” and the “junk shot”?), false claims (BP initially estimated that the well was leaking only 5,000 barrels a day), and generally diminished expectations all around.

Indeed, as early tests on Friday confirmed that there was no sign of fresh oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon rig, a sort of tentative acceptance began to take hold in New Orleans, and also across the country, that a new and more positive phase of the oil well fiasco might have begun.

“After the gulf is clean and the pelicans and wildlife are safe and the oysters and shrimp and crab are back in my gumbo, then I’ll start to parade,” said Bryan Batt, an actor from television’s “Mad Men” who is a native New Orleanian and one of the area’s biggest boosters. “Although I’d love to start the celebration, I remain cautiously optimistic.”

While the temporary capping of the well is a promising development, government and BP officials acknowledge that it is in no way a permanent solution to the disaster that has oiled wildlife and beaches from Texas to Florida and put tens of thousands of fishermen out of work. Experts say the oil currently in the gulf will continue to wash up onshore for a long time.

It is a reprieve of sorts, however, and has had the impact of recapturing some of the public’s attention, which had started to drift away about a month ago, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

“We needed a day of happy news,” said Louis Allen, a retired engineer in Atlanta. But, he added, “The story isn’t over. Not close. It’s only Chapter 1. The oil has only just begun to be a problem for the coast.”

Major news Web sites like have streamed the oil spill cam essentially around the clock since the feeds first became available to the public in late May. A CNN spokeswoman said traffic to the oil spill camera feeds was “steadily high” until mid-June, when it dipped somewhat, “and then picked up again big time this week,” some 345 percent over the previous 30-day average for all live video on

Other Web sites also said they saw a big spike in views on Thursday as the new cap was installed. The “PBS NewsHour,” which was among the first to post the spill cams online, counted 480,000 streams of the spill cam, including a remarkable 200,000 simultaneously. Earlier in the week, the oil spill cam was counting under 200,000 streams a day, PBS said.

In Denver, many were anxiously seeking out news updates on the efforts to contain the oil. Leigh Wills, a consultant, worried that the cap would not hold. He said he would also like the news media to keep on the well’s case. “You hear so many stories,” said Mr. Wills, 41. “But I’d rather hear about this than Mel Gibson or Tiger Woods.”

Mark Zwillich, a high school teacher in Atlanta, said he felt restrained enthusiasm about the situation in the gulf, for the first time in a long time.

“I’m relieved that they did what they should have done a long time ago,” said Mr. Zwillich, 57. “I’m happy for the environment. Now let’s see if BP can make good to the people of the Gulf Coast.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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