“This was going to change everything; our work, our beautiful home. We wondered if our way of life was gone." - Kara Lankford
Seven years have passed since the oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded about forty miles off the Louisiana coast, a devastating crisis that claimed the lives of eleven people, injured hundreds, ravaged over 1300 miles of coastline, and infiltrated a vast marine environment full of abundant wildlife. 205 million gallons of crude oil spewed out into the open ocean for 87 days, creating the largest and most destructive marine oil spill in history.
Watching the unstoppable black sheets of oil trudging toward the coast was like viewing the aftermath of a violent attack; black and blue given a new, brutal meaning. Ocean Conservancy is the only organization in the region focused solely on the blue: the deep water marine restoration effort. They’re combining hard science with local wisdom to strategize how the gulf’s diverse wildlife can thrive again.
“Nobody was prepared for this disaster,” says Kara Lankford, an Alabama native, and one of the first people on the scene. As Director of Gulf Restoration at Ocean Conservancy, she’s spearheading a monumental effort to restore what was lost and build a solid foundation for the future.
"When the news hit, I quickly began to realize this wasn't just another oil spill, this was a massive problem,” Kara reflects. “This was going to change everything; our work, our beautiful home. We wondered if our way of life was gone. I thought of my childhood: building sandcastles, eating oysters, fishing with my dad… could it all be over?”
At first there was chaos. "There were boats everywhere, and my job was to make sure the people cleaning up weren’t causing more harm to the environment.”
Kara put everything into her work. No more weekends, no time off, just endless days that felt like Groundhog Day. "Walking into a new disaster everyday, shocked faces everywhere you looked, and a command center that was like a war zone."
“We have to be really strategic; leverage dollars to execute projects in a meaningful way.” - Kara Lankford
Seven years later, after countless projects, epic legal maneuvers, passing the Restore Act, and creating a wealth of research that never existed before, they finally have the resources they need to make a lasting difference for the region. The first payment from the BP settlement arrived on April 4, 2017.
“Finally we can start thinking about large-scale marine restoration work,” Kara says. “20 billion dollars is a lot of money, but this is a massive ecosystem, and it’s not nearly enough. We have to be really strategic; leverage dollars to execute projects in a meaningful way.”
This anniversary is all about the future.
“What I’m most excited about,” says Kara, “is that the Gulf region, a region nobody thinks about in terms of innovation, or science, has this incredible opportunity to really achieve something. We’re creating a restoration economy. Who would have thought a bunch of red states could come together to use science and technology to restore our ecosystem and be an example to the world?”
The team is looking at innovative ways to restore the gulf, like using science and technology to repair coral reefs, and address the largest die-off of bottlenose dolphins. It’s Not Ok that they can never bring back the hundreds of thousands of sea birds like pelicans and gulls, or the thousands of sea turtles that are gone forever. But Kara and the team at Ocean Conservancy can sew the roots of recovery. They know the challenges, but they’ve been working tirelessly for seven years to get to this moment.
The gulf is Kara’s backyard. The mangroves, oyster reefs, tidal marshes, barrier islands are all part of her roots, but when you think about it, they’re tied to all of us too. As citizens, as humans, as people that want to preserve our wild places. We have a part in this –– to stand up and make sure a disaster like this never happens again.
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