From: Oreskes, Michael [AP senior managing editor]
Sent: Tuesday, May 04, 2010 4:58 PM
Subject: Beat of the Week No. 348
AP reporter Cain Burdeau, video journalist Rich Matthews and freelance photographer Pat Semansky [working for AP] weren’t content to hear the news; they wanted to see it.
Slowly but surely, the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico approached the Louisiana coast, and reporters and TV crews from around the country were eager to capture the moment the oil reached shore and the first effects on the fragile Gulf ecosystem. Most of them gathered at the command center where the Coast Guard, oil giant British Petroleum and the government would hold briefings.
Not Burdeau, Matthews and Semansky.
They knew that the best place to cover the drama unfolding at sea was on the water. But where exactly? That required local knowledge and some sea-dogged reporting that would lead to the Beat of the Week award.
Burdeau worked local sources and spoke to oilfield workers at the staging area in Venice, La., to get a sense of where and when the first waves of oil would reach the Mississippi River Delta. Acting on that intelligence and guidance from colleagues in the New Orleans bureau monitoring weather and currents, Burdeau, Matthews and Semansky boarded a charter boat whose captain was a Coast Guard veteran and experienced offshore sailor.
Five and a half miles out in rolling six-foot waves, they saw the distinct sheen of oil on the water. Burdeau called news editor Brian Schwaner in New Orleans, who suggested they follow the edge of the oil sheen as they headed back toward shore. Eventually, in fading light they found long tendrils of oil reaching the shoreline, and the signs of it were everywhere in the South Pass of the Mississippi and the surrounding wetlands. Burdeau phoned it in and the APNewsAlert went out immediately.
Twenty minutes later, a frantic Coast Guard public affairs officer called Burdeau and said he was being bombarded by media about the AP story. Where did it come from? Burdeau told him what he saw.
Later, NASA satellite imagery and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration overflight maps showed that what the AP had seen was the tip of an oil sheen that snaked into the delta before moving more generally north as a huge blob. NOAA maps would soon confirm the delta as the first place in Louisiana with oiled beaches.
Burdeau figured in two other significant beats on the oil spill.
He learned that a dockside warehouse was being prepped as an animal rescue center, and called photographer Alex Brandon, a longtime New Orleans photographer now based in Washington. Brandon went to the warehouse to do some reconnaissance. As chance would have it, the first bird, a Northern Gannett, had just been brought in, covered in oil. Brandon took the first pictures of affected wildlife, which were flashed across the world and dominated cable TV and websites.
Burdeau and New Orleans reporter Mike Kunzelman were tipped by an environmentalist source to take a look at the 2009 exploration plan and environmental impact analysis for the oil rig that caused the spill when it exploded 48 miles off shore. Kunzelman got a copy, and he, national writer Allen Breed and New York Business Writer Chris Kahn scrambled to pore over the 52-page document, which severely played down the possibility of the very scenario that was unfolding. The document suggested it was unlikely, or virtually impossible, for an accident to occur that would lead to a giant crude oil spill and serious damage to beaches, fish and mammals. The story won 17-0 newspaper play and was widely played online.
For their resourcefulness and determination to find the story themselves instead of waiting for the official announcement, Burdeau, Matthews, Semansky and Brandon win this week’s $500 prize.