Three girls watch as the tall, well-dressed man strides down the cracked sidewalk, across the playground, through the weeds, past the swings, and toward a merry-go-round that might have once been blue but is now a tired gray. They seem wary here in the shadows of the housing projects and petrochemical plants that make up their world. Life on the west side of Port Arthur, Texas, is hard; street smarts come early by necessity.
The moment Gulfport, Miss., resident Megan Jordan feared has arrived. The viscous onslaught of crude is no longer an abstract horror belonging to Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida. The first globules of oil have slipped through the Mississippi Sound and washed ashore in nearby Ocean Springs. For Ms. Jordan and her neighbors, this isn’t just any beach – it’s the keeper of memories, the provenance of dreams. The destruction is hard to bear. Their passion, properly channeled, could become a crucial element in future oil spill defense.
For Tennessee firefighter Chris Copeland, responding to disasters is a way of life, but three days before Christmas, his world was shaken to its foundation when the rescuer found himself in a new role — survivor. Just after midnight Dec. 22, while Copeland lay sleeping, an earthen dike gave way on the north side of Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Kingston, Tenn. Within seconds, 5.4 million cubic yards of fly ash — a by-product of coal combustion — oozed into the Emory River, gaining speed until the glossy, debris-laden sludge roared through the Swan Pond area, leaving three homes destroyed and 42 damaged. Copeland says the sound was deafening; he thought it was a tornado.
I’ve never been one to turn down a hot story, and Centralia is smoking – literally. A Pennsylvania coal mining town that’s been on fire 44 years; 11 stubborn old-timers who refuse to leave; fiery sidewalks that melt the soles off your shoes. How could I resist? An abandoned strip mine caught fire in 1962, igniting an underground coal seam that has burned under Centralia ever since. Experts say it could burn another 250 years. I imagined an eerie, smoke-laden atmosphere, sun streaming across a barren landscape, miles of scorched Earth. Why would people live in such a Godforsaken place?