If you want to feel like you know nothing, be an information officer on the oil spill response.
I used to work on the Gulf Coast. I was there during Katrina and I have a connection to the place. I really wanted to help, so as my agency prepared a response I volunteered to go as a public information officer (PIO). In the three weeks I was there, I was outraged by the effects of the catastrophe and disappointed by feelings of my own futility. It was only during my last week that I was assigned to the actual shoreline, at the national park where I used to work.
I spent my first week about as far from the oil and shoreline as anyone on the response: at the Unified Command in Robert, Louisiana. Robert was the field headquarters for the whole response effort. Run from a Shell training facility rented by BP, it oversaw the various area commands where most of the response operations were run out of. My first impressions were “what a complete clusterfuck” and “wow, a lot of people are working very hard to solve this problem.” I spent much my first afternoon getting my laptop working in the External Affairs trailer. The External Affairs division comprised public relations professionals from various federal agencies. They reminded me of characters on “The West Wing” in that they took themselves a little too seriously.
My supposed function was fielding media inquiries about national parks. However, when I got to Robert, oil was in the South Louisiana marshes and BP was attempting the “top kill”, so national parks were off everybody’s radar. So my only routine task was to each morning write up a statistical summary that worked its way up to the White House. It was an easy enough job that I could finish before 7:30 a.m., but the imprecise business of gathering statistics caused some complications. For example, I pointed out a drop in the reckoned total personnel working on the response from one day to the next and this sent a young Department of Homeland Security (DHS) guy into a panic. The administration had been saying that 20,000 people are working on the response. This number turned out to be in error and was more like 15,000. Reporting smaller figures is apparently worse than being precise, so the DHS guy had to come up with some justification for continuing to use the 20,000 figure. He found one, and Obama used the 20,000 figure in a press conference that afternoon. This contributed to feeling that I was not doing anything particularly important.
There were a handful of national parks people in a sea of Coast Guard and BP at Robert. I think we were there just to remind those folks that the National Parks exist (eight on the Gulf Coast and South Florida) and were at risk of oil contamination. I made a few efforts to raise the NPS profile on the response website, with mixed results. After a week of this, I suggested that my knowledge of the Gulf Coast would be better used elsewhere. So I was sent to the Mobile, Alabama command responsible for Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida panhandle.
My first week in Mobile was a busier version of what I was doing in Robert: contributing little to what I thought was important from an unsatisfying position in a headquarters building. Mostly I compiled reports of interest only to invisible officials in Washington, D.C. Except for a brief stop in Ocean Springs on my way to Mobile I hadn’t yet set foot on the shoreline. Nominally, I was assigned to the Joint Information Center (JIC), though my reporting responsibilities to my agency pulled me away from this Q & A work. That put me into a somewhat isolated and dreary position. But I was happy to oblige and I did the job well, so when I was asked to extend for a week, I agreed with the condition that I be sent into the field.
People, mainly journalists, called the JIC to ask questions, usually not the answer-at-your-fingertips kind. The information officers at the JIC had to go find the answers. The intensity at the JIC went in and out with the tide, or as oil washed up on the beaches in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. It took a few days just to get my bearings. Being a massive and complex incident it was very hard to grasp it all. It was busiest the weekend oil started washing up on the beaches around Pensacola. Even though oil had washed ashore in Mississippi and Alabama earlier in the week, oil on Florida beaches attracted much more attention. It was as if oil isn’t really on the beach until it’s on a Florida beach.
The reports we had access to rarely had the exact answers to the reporters’ questions, so we had to find someone in another section for the answer. For example, I might ask someone at the Florida operations branch if they know what kind of oil, where, and how far off of Pensacola is it? Or, where are the skimmers and how many are working where? How many feet of containment boom are deployed around Pensacola Bay? They might in turn refer me to the SCAT (shoreline clean-up assessment technique) coordinators or to the situation group in the planning section. I would later discover that the maps and figures didn’t always jive with the reality in the field, but I couldn’t know that from the suburban office building where we were working.
After beach-goers and reporters harassed some clean-up crews on Santa Rosa Island, our growing national park cohort at the JIC started sending more PIOs to Gulf Islands National Seashore. Our strategy was to assist the clean-up crews and the resource advisors (READs)—biologists who kept the responders from doing further harm to the park as they cleaned up—deal with the media and visitors so they could do their jobs.
I was a little underwhelmed, but still disgusted, by the oil I saw on Santa Rosa Island during my first day in the field: mostly little blobs the size of a dime scattered along the wrack line, and much had been cleaned up. It was unlike the solid slicks that the media showed inundating the Louisiana marshes. I saw worse later.
Media interest waned somewhat after the first oily weekend in Florida but we continued to assist the READs and offer “media availabilities”. I accompanied a media entourage on a vessel that took them off the Alabama coast to “look for oil”. The reporters preferred to talk to the Coast Guard, but none of their PIOs were available for this boat, so they had to settle for a park ranger. One of the local TV reporters on my boat interviewed me while she did her makeup. When they could get along side the other media boat, they interviewed the Coast Guard PIO on it while filming nasty orange blobs and silvery sheens on the water.
This was my first look at oily offshore waters. It appeared very difficult to clean. Skimmer boats tried soaking it up by dragging sorbent booms between them. Another skimmer used the pompom-like absorbent parts from a snare boom attached to a long pole to (literally) mop up mats of oil. They wore full protective suits. They must have been broiling.
The next day I was called out to Petit Bois Island in Mississippi. The READs had requested a PIO to deal some media hovering around the island on a boat. Of course by the time I got out there the reporters had departed. I stayed on the island in case they returned, and learned a lot about what those report figures meant in living color at a national park.
Petit Bois Island is a desert. It is hot and exposed. There is no shade except what you erect and no drinkable water except what you bring. The sand is white and reflects heat right back up at you. The clean-up crews erected little shade shelters every quarter-mile or so.
As well as being a desert, Petis Bois was a mess. There were large puddles of brown oil, some maybe 10 feet by 5 feet and an inch thick in patches along the oil-soaked wrack line. The work crews, because they were dealing with heavy concentrations, wore plastic suits to their waists, boots, gloves, and—for some reason—hard hats. With the humidity the heat index was way past 100 degrees—and they worked through the middle of the day. I was hot just watching them. They took long and frequent breaks.
Also a mess was the impact on the island. Petit Bois is federal wilderness area which, in the words of Wilderness Act of 1964, is to be a place “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” But in order to clean up oil along six or more miles of an offshore Gulf beach you need dozens of workers, utility terrain vehicles (UTVs), shade, water, fuel, food, toilets, boats, landing areas—all while attempting to not disturb sensitive bird and turtle nesting areas or fragile dunes systems and seagrass beds. The crews and the biologists were diligent and innovative as they tried to strike a balance among safety, clean-up, and protection of the natural resources, but neither the catastrophic oil pollution nor this massive clean-up operation honored the spirit of the wilderness.
Even though I didn’t catch up with any reporters that day on Petit Bois Island, I was on television and on radio and quoted in the newspaper. My usual question and answer functions as a park ranger were at once highly simplified and greatly magnified. Most of my previous experience with news reporters has been pretty straightforward, and if I screw up it doesn’t get into the national news.
As a PIO for a national incident I had to stick to a few key messages and wasn’t afforded much candor. On the media boat tour I was confined to the vessel with eight reporters for six hours. Everything I said could have been fair game to them so I spoke as little and as carefully as possible, which seems an impediment to transparency. I’m not entirely comfortable with that; there is an art to it which takes preparation and practice. Public relations folks (like the “West Wing” types in Robert) labor under the presumption that they can (and should) manipulate the media into reporting the news their way with pre-packaged messages. I concluded that though skillful people can pull that off, the media have to want to hear what you have to say first.
Tuesday we were at Rosamond Johnson Beach on Perdido Key, Florida. This was a little case study in how hard it was getting accurate information and everybody on the same page. We arrived just in time for heavy oil to wash up on the beach. Crews had been cleaning it all weekend. The lifeguards asked the swimmers to leave the water. They don’t have authority to close the beach or the water, and it wasn’t clear who does. Closing beaches and waters is a touchy subject and, also impractical, according to someone I spoke with at the Florida Department of Health. The READs and the lifeguards wanted the waters closed or at least a strongly worded official health advisory issued from park management, which wasn’t forthcoming. There was also, according to the lifeguards, a state or county health advisory for county waters that ended at the park boundary. I discovered that everything is a rumor until verified, but as PIO I had to be prepared to answer questions about the lifeguards’ decision and the park’s inconsistency with the county’s health advisory, and whether the oil on the beach is dangerous or not. We never did untangle it all but the media let us off the hook by not showing up. The beach-goers, for their part, had mixed reactions. Most stayed out of the water, but not all. One lady said they only came down to the beach once or twice a year, and that they would risk it for the sake of saving their vacation.
To sum up my admittedly limited experiences and observations: there is nothing easy about fixing the big, complicated mess down on the Gulf Coast. I spoke to a lot of people living and working there who just shook their heads in anger, sadness, and disappointment. I found myself shaking my head a lot too.