By Dr. Carol Pollio
The orders recalled me to New Orleans, but I’d been told I could end up anywhere “from Houston to Florida”.
Thus began my assignment to the Gulf Oil Spill. I headed into New Orleans on July 5th, and then on to Mobile, Alabama, on July 7th. The Incident Command Post (ICP) is in Mobile – spending almost a week there was an exciting experience. The small business park that houses the ICP is in a constant state of ‘movement’. Folks entering and leaving, shuttle buses coming in and out, and lots of people bustling here and there – and that’s just outside the ICP! Being inside the ICP is really an amazing experience. There are several hundred folks here – most wearing color-coded vests with inserts showing their ICS position – nearly all of them talking at the same time. What most impressed me was how each person would have probably 30 or more mini-meetings per day – many just a few sentences long – and make (often) major decisions.
The Worker Bee
My first assignment was to ICP Mobile – a worker bee in the hive, if you will – to be an assistant to the USCG Planning Chief. My day began at 0630 and typically ended at 1900 hours or later. The day was filled with meetings, briefings, and running down information for the Coast Guard Planning Chief (there is also a BP Planning Chief, working out of the same office). My impression from my own experience and that of my colleagues in the ICP was that BP was making every effort to help correct this situation.
I heard their honest and upbeat optimism that the cap would work, when it couldn’t be expressed outright to the media. I witnessed them strategize on different approaches and I worked side-by-side with their staff, who were dedicated and thoughtful people. It was a great experience to be on the inside – so different from my previous years as a wildland firefighter, where I was always the “grunt” in the ICS organization! While I spent only a few hectic days in Mobile, I was very happy to hear that my ‘permanent’ assignment had been determined – Liaison Officer to Santa Rosa County, Florida. I was excited, to say the least!
Fast forward to today, I have been the Liaison Officer for the Coast Guard in Santa Rosa County for about a week now. I’ve learned so much and had some very interesting experiences. My first surprise was that one of our AMU graduates, Daniel Hahn, would be my colleague – Dan is the Plans Chief for the Santa Rosa County Division of Emergency Management (and a previous student of mine!). It has been great working with Dan and he should be an inspiration for all of our current students – he is out in the field using the knowledge he gained at AMU in his chosen field of Emergency and Disaster Management.
The Clean Up
The first thing I wanted to see was the oil on the beach. Part of my familiarization tour included Ft. Pickens, Navarre Beach, and Pensacola Pass. The Ft. Pickens area was hit with oil a few weeks ago, but once the weather changed, the storm that doused us with rain in Mobile pushed the oil back out to sea. Since then, this area has been experiencing tarballs – small, thumbnail sized chocolate colored pieces of sand and oil, with a consistency of peanut butter. The good news is that they are scattered along the shoreline and easy to clean up. Crews composed of previously unemployed local residents swarmed the beaches every day, removing every trace of oil. Typically, there are two 10-hour shifts of cleanup workers and they are getting ready to implement night crews as I write this. The heat of the day is just too much – safety dictates 20 minutes of work and 40 minutes of rest in this heat! Therefore, the crews’ new shifts will go through the night and avoid the hottest part of the day. I saw them working with headlamps just a few nights ago on Pensacola Beach. Pensacola Beach is completely clean and I have not seen any oil here. Navarre Beach is similar to Ft. Pickens Beach and experiences tarballs some days. Overall, the beaches of Florida are very clean. I have not been to Alabama or Louisiana, but I have heard that they were not so fortunate. AL and LA have much more oil there, but also have the equipment and resources actively working to clean it up. The long-term effects of this incident are yet to be determined, but the response to it has been outstanding!
Today’s issue is the tropical storm that is brewing … we are already in motion to pull back equipment and some of the less effective or potentially damaging boom to avoid the storm surge. This equipment will be stored in yards several miles from the coast and redeployed after the storm has passed. There is a new sense of worry in the air.
In my next installment, I’ll talk about the issues encountered as a Liaison Officer and their resolution. The rumors, concerns, and challenges faced at the local level in responding to an incident of this magnitude. Until then, I’ll be battening down the hatches.
Dr. Carol A. Pollio has actively served in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve for the past 27 years and holds the rank of Commander. She is currently the Field Operations Supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region, where she manages 13 Ecological Services field offices from Maine to Virginia.
Dr. Pollio is also the Program Director for the Environmental Studies degree program at American Military University.