Gung-ho but untrained, volunteers hit a wall in helping mitigate gulf oil spill


NEW ORLEANS — They were 1,200 miles away from the geyser at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, but still they felt the tug of anxiety and guilt.

They called BP’s information hotline on Memorial Day.

What can we do? they asked.

BP told them that the greatest need was in local communities.

So college friends Gordon Rhoads, Matthew Tucker and Chris Belles raised some quick cash, whipped up a blog, packed an HD video camera and road-tripped 20 hours from the Philadelphia area to New Orleans to do something, anything. The trio of 24-year-olds arrived after dark at a $40-a-night hotel on St. Charles Avenue, a little delirious from the long trip, and began to unpack for a week-long volunteer gambit.

“BP was friendly and kept saying, ‘Come on down,’ so here we are, calling their bluff,” said Rhoads, a graduate education student at Arcadia University in Philadelphia, standing in a mess of luggage in the hotel. “We want to show there’s something an individual can do.”

They were electrified by earnestness, ready for action and not yet aware that it would be five days until they’d be able to do something, anything.

* * *

Maybe the only thing more frustrating than trying to plug an oil leak is volunteering to mitigate its effects. Local, state and federal authorities, as well as nonprofit groups, have created a confusing maze of response operations that have been slow (or unable) to harness a surge of volunteers.

BP couldn’t handle the thousands of calls flooding its hotline every day, so the company partnered with a volunteer agency in each affected state. Now, 800 calls a day are funneled to Volunteer Louisiana, Serve Alabama, Volunteer Florida and the Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Service. But some Samaritans haven’t received any response from them, and authorities, who have struggled to organize, say they can’t use what they call “raw,” or untrained, volunteers.

“Right now, we’re focused on the oil spill recovery efforts,” said Iris Cross, head of communications for BP America. “We’re using more of the trained individuals for onshore recovery and wildlife efforts. Regular volunteer initiatives are limited right now.”

Forty hours of training are required to work with oil. Moreover, jobs that would normally be done by volunteers are being given to out-of-work fishermen and oil workers for pay.

“There is this amazing spirit of generosity among Americans, and across the world, and we want to affirm that — it’s just that everyone wants to come today, and today we don’t need them,” said Janet Pace, executive director of the Louisiana Serve Commission, whose Volunteer Louisiana Web site registers 100 to 150 hopefuls every day. “We may need them in two weeks or five months.”

Some say that every able body should be deployed now. Paid, trained cleanup workers are working only a portion of the days, said John F. Young Jr., councilman at large for Jefferson Parish, but volunteers could staff 24-7 shifts.

“We need more hands on deck and there’s a lot of people who want to get involved, but there doesn’t appear to be a mechanism to plug people in,” Young said. “To me, it’s another example of a disconnect and another example of why this whole effort is so disjointed. There needs to be a military-style chain of command to get something done. I’m so frustrated.”

Untrained, gung-ho responders are hitting a brick wall when it comes to cleanup and wildlife. But the humanitarian response needs backup, pronto.

* * *

“Extreme frustration” is how Gordon Rhoads described Day 1 of their volunteer endeavor. Calls to BP were fruitless, so they contacted the Red Cross, which handed them off to the United Way, which connected them to the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, which assigned them work at an emergency food distribution center in three days’ time. In the interim, they visited Grand Isle and posted footage of oil blobs on their blog.

On Day 4, they stopped by an eight-hour emergency response training course in the Lower Garden District given by Roger Ivens, 29-year-old co-owner of a New Orleans temp agency.

In the first weeks after the rig explosion, Ivens grew impatient with the response by nonprofit organizations, so he flew to Cleveland to become a certified hazmat instructor through New Environment, which also provided him with a trove of chemical- and emergency-response guidebooks. He started a group called NOLA Oil Spill Cleanup and Animal Rescue on to rally and train people who couldn’t find a way to volunteer. The goal was to arm the group with certifications so it could caravan to Grand Isle that weekend to do guerrilla volunteering.

“I want the world to see that there might be a bunch of dying pelicans on the beach, and we have the training and the right personal protective equipment to be able to pick up those animals and bring them back to” the National Audubon Society, Ivens said. “If they tell us no, we can’t, even though we have [training], then they’re hiding something.”

The event attracted 40 people, who saw this as their best shot to get credentialed to lay booms.

“I called Audubon. I called the BP hotline. And they took all my information, but I didn’t hear back,” said Jessa Madosky, 26, a PhD student in conservation biology who has worked as a veterinary technician. “I’d like to be more hands-on because I feel like the wildlife’s going to keep coming in.”

“I felt helpless watching TV and want to get out there and lay as many booms as possible under BP’s restricting nose,” said Giuliana Aiello, 55, an insurance agent. “All I got from BP were activities during the week, and why would I want to work with the company who cut corners in the first place?”

The coast is their front yard, they said, and they will clean it up with or without the blessing of authorities.

* * *

On the sweltering morning of their fifth day, Rhoads, Tucker and Belles finally got to help. They arrived at St. Anthony Church in Lafitte, a fishing community 30 miles south of New Orleans. Alongside the Catholic Charities staff, they logged the needs of a couple hundred residents who came to collect $100 grocery vouchers and boxes of white rice, peanut butter, mayo and canned corn. The Philadelphians were the only three unpaid workers present.

“We struggle to get volunteers,” said Steve Lenahan, associate director of community centers for Catholic Charities. Volunteers are needed to help people, but most show up wanting to save birds and other wildlife, said Lexie Montgomery, volunteer coordinator for the National Audubon Society, which has accumulated 27,000 names in its volunteer database since the leak began.

“I have friends of mine in New York City who want to wash a pelican, and I was like, ‘You’ll probably hurt the pelican,’ ” Montgomery said. “When I was first in Venice, people were frantically driving down to help, traffic increased and I was noticing turtles getting run over.”

If people really want to help on the ground, they should be ready for a longer-term commitment, said Nancy Torcson, director of Clearwater Wildlife Sanctuary in Covington, La. The sanctuary has begun training 20 volunteers at a time to deploy for one-month rotations.

The most direct way to help people and animals is to donate money, Torcson said. Many people have been wary about doing this because of the manmade nature of the disaster, but children in Covington recently hosted lemonade stands to raise funds for the sanctuary to import live fish to feed distressed pelicans.

Raising money “is a grass-roots thing and everyone does feel involved,” Torcson said. “When the children handed cash over to me before we got ready to go out on a fish run, they could see how happy we were. Because of these children, those pelicans are getting fed.”

So was a 1,200-mile, $850 trip worth it to log names and distribute vouchers?

“Absolutely,” said Rhoads, who plans to return to Louisiana on Monday to bring supplies donated at a fundraising event he hosted in Philadelphia. “A generation down there has been brutalized in this disaster, and it is my personal goal to restore their lives and restore their hope. But I’m not taking myself too seriously. I’m just trying to do a good thing and be a citizen.”

* * *

Ivens and his caravan of 15 rogue volunteers arrived in Grand Isle on a Saturday morning, ready to clean up their front yard. They found a discarded decontamination boot and oil-soaked booms that had washed ashore on an otherwise spotless stretch of beach. They took photos and notified local authorities.

That evening, during a spaghetti dinner at the rental house, the conversation turned tense.

“We are going to pick up the booms,” Roger Ivens said, “and go knock on the door [at a BP office] and say: ‘Here, we found this. What do we do with it?’ ”

“Cleaning up the boom and setting it on the doorstep is a good idea but a little antagonistic,” said Summer Burkes, a writer and volunteer from New Orleans.

Some volunteers, agitated at the proposal, got up to leave the room, and others urged a more united, civil approach. In the end, everyone agreed that flouting authority would be less constructive than communicating ground reports to the right people. To that end, Ivens met with Young, the Jefferson Parish councilman, to talk about forming a watchdog group that would scout the beaches and waters in tandem with the Coast Guard. He showed Young photos of the errant oil-soaked booms.

“They need people out there to observe and report,” Ivens said. “Two days later, [Young] was at the same locations we were at with [Louisiana Gov. Bobby] Jindal, showing him what we had shown him. What we had done that weekend had gone all the way to the top.”

Ivens’s group is filing an application for nonprofit status as “Defenders of the Coast,” a somewhat grandiose name befitting a small citizen uprising that is falling in step with a larger mission.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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