A year ago, more than 1,000 miles of coast felt the devastating impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  It damaged an environment that already had endured a long legacy of deterioration and challenges.

But as with many of life’s disasters, St Augustine had it right: Ex Malo Bonum, there is no bad thing that doesn’t result in some good.

“The oil disaster, though truly tragic, gave us a chance to raise awareness,” says Michelle Erenberg, special projects coordinator with the Gulf Restoration Network. “We were able to build on the frustration of the communities and the residents who felt the real impact of this disaster and begin to make some positive changes.”

One of the things GRN built was a strong coalition that began working on the many issues facing the Gulf and its residents. A group consisting of 119 individuals representing 53 diverse organizations collaboratively drafted a unified action plan for the recovery of the Gulf of Mexico. 

Next Wednesday, the anniversary of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, the plan will be officially released. It outlines specific demands of Congress, the Obama administration, and federal agencies regarding community recovery, coastal restoration, public health and marine ecosystem recovery.

The announcement is just one of the many events planned for the oil spill memorial.

Erenberg, always passionate about environmental issues, earned a master’s in public administration from the University of New Orleans.

“After graduation, I couldn’t find a job here working on the environment,” she says. “So, I moved to California, the Mecca for environmental issues, but after Katrina I knew I had to come back. Homesickness hit me hard.”

She’s happy to be back in New Orleans and loves her current job. GRN provides technical support and mentoring to grassroots groups and keeps its members and the public aware of national and regional issues of importance to the Gulf. It works on such issues as water quality, wetlands, sustainable fisheries, smart energy, hurricane rebuilding and species-at-risk.

Last year, through her work with GRN, Michelle was an integral part of the community response to the BP oil drilling disaster. She organized the coordinated Gulf Recovery Campaign. Today, she continues to serve coastal communities, build coalitions, educate the public and motivate volunteers.

After a year, the spill seems to be forgotten, but it surely isn’t gone. The reality is that the oil and the toxic dispersant – Corexit – continue to have real impacts on the region. The people and environment of the Gulf are still struggling.

Michelle believes next week’s memorial will once again bring focus to all that still needs to be done to restore the Gulf.

“I enjoy the challenge of my job,” she says. “It takes immense energy to build and continue momentum, but when it works, it really works, and it is so satisfying.”