Sea Grant Response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Disaster

“We’re getting awfully good at responding to disasters,” said Chuck Wilson. “One of our greatest assets is the unity of the programs in the region.” The Gulf Coast Sea Grant programs immediately reached out to Alaska to learn from their experience with the Exxon Valdez, a move which proved crucial.

LSG was able to get a staffer embedded within Incident Command, the federal agency hub where daily briefings provided the best source for information which could then be disseminated to extension staff much faster than information coming from NOAA or state agencies. The Gulf Coast programs created a website to distribute “groundtruthed” information to counter the volume of misinformation.

Sea Grant responded to concerns about seafood safety. “You can’t test every piece of seafood, but people don’t want to hear that.” Extension staff were trained in seafood contamination detection so they could better explain it to stakeholders–even after one day of training, a person can smell oil at 10 ppm; a trained person can smell it at 5 ppm. This “sensory training” is now being added to HAACP training nationwide.

The lack of information resulted in the corrosion of public trust in government. Sea Grant was able to adapt rapidly and respond to community needs, and as a result emerged as the best source of information, getting people together with agencies in small meetings. The Sea Grant Law Center issued information on how to file claims, and Sea Grant produced daily maps of fishery closures. Sea Grant created K-12 materials because classrooms were starving for information on oil spills.

It was suggested that the Gulf Coast programs need to summarize their experiences and provide some best practices to the network, as well as tell this story as an example of the value of a national network.

A continuing concern is post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological effects of the disaster, with three suicides related to the BP oil. Respected community leaders are being trained in “peer listening” and Cooperative Extension is being tapped for their expertise in family health matters.

Another big issue is “the BP money fight,” with billions coming in federal recovery funds and $500 million from BP ($50 million per year per state).  Sea Grant scraped together $50,000 right after the spill, had 50 proposals requesting half a million dollars, and funded 10 projects. If Sea Grant had more funding, we could have been viewed better by the academic community.

(by Catherine Schmitt, Maine Sea Grant)

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