Last week I wrote a column asking the question: whatever happened to the Gulf oil spill? Thanks to presidential commissions and great investigative reporting, we know a great deal about why the spill happened and what impact it might have on the land and the water of the Gulf. In the news, though, the spill seems largely gone.
But just because the oil spill isn’t trending on Twitter anymore doesn’t mean that its victims have recovered. Far from it. The poor coastal areas of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi—where fishing provided one of the few sources of livelihoods—were still recovering from Hurricane Katrina when the Deepwater Horizon exploded, and the oil could be a death blow. The offshore drilling industry may be recovering, BP’s stock is back on the rise and even nature in the Gulf seems to be doing better, but the economic damage for people like Linda Goleman of Coden, Alabama could be permanent. “My husband is hard-working, but he hasn’t been able to work [in the fishing industry] since the oil spill,” she told me recently. “We have a home that’s falling apart, and we’ve been denied by BP.”
It’s a common story, even if it’s one we don’t hear as much as we did earlier this year, when the spill was still in the headlines. But at least Coden—where over 100 families still haven’t rebuilt their homes since Katrina—is making some progress towards recovery, thanks in part to a gift from a clean tech company based thousands of miles away in California. Earlier this month the solar installation startup SolarCity—with money from its chairman, the high-flying tech entrepreneur Elon Musk—donated a 25-kilowatt solar power system to the South Bay Communities Alliance’s (SBCA) Hurricane Response Center in Coden. The solar arrays—made up of 108 photovoltaic panels—is worth around $400,000 and should provide 90 to 100% of the power used by the Center. Together with a battery backup, the system will help keep SBCA able to respond to the next big disaster, even if the community ends up cut off from the grid. “This seemed like a good thing to do to help people out, while simultaneously creating awareness that there was a better way to keep things going than just ‘drill, baby, drill,” says Musk, who also runs the electric car company Tesla Motors.
For the people of Coden—who’ve come to depend on the SBCA as a center for their recovering community—solar power makes a practical difference, and a symbolic one. “Electricity bills are a big deal for a community center like ours when you have to pay for it out-of-pocket,” says Zack Carter, an organizer for SBCA. “But all of a sudden now we have solar power! For a little area that no one has ever heard about, that’s amazing.” (Download a petition from SBCA here.)
Of course, solar power is just a small contribution to the enormous needs of a troubled community like Coden, not to mention all of the other ruined fishing towns up and down the Gulf Coast. But the gift shows how renewable energy—even if it still costs more than most fossil fuel power—can be especially useful for towns that need electricity that can function off the grid, in the case of a disaster. (It’s the same reason that the U.S. military has been at the forefront of developing solar power—renewables mean energy security.) Symbolism matters too, though—especially in a part of the country that has been dependent on oil and natural gas not just for power, but for jobs as well. “We’re trying to highlight the fact that all of these costs associated with mining and oil drilling and other hydrocarbons, while we may not pay for them at the gas tank or on our electricity bill, the costs are still real,” says Musk. “There is a tragedy of the commons going on here.”
No one knows that better than the people of Coden, but it’s a price we’re all paying now—and continue to pay, even after the Gulf spill has receded from national attention. Oil and gas won’t be going away any time soon, but the only sure way to reduce the chance of another Deepwater Horizon is to lessen our addiction to those fuels, bit by bit.
If you want to hear more from the people directly impacted by the spill, check out StoryCorps, which has been recording narratives from Gulf fishermen, like this one:
More from TIME on the oil spill: