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BP oil spill responders united in the face of disaster

By Ed O'Keefe
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; B03

Coast Guard Cmdr. Jim Elliott is the deputy incident commander at the unified command post in Mobile, Ala., one of seven Gulf Coast locations where federal, state and local officials are working on the BP oil spill. He had a similar role after hurricanes Katrina and Rita:

Q

What did you do after Katrina and Rita, and how does it compare to now?

Just like in Katrina, we had numerous states impacted, so we joined in a unified command with the state agencies, local governments and multiple federal agencies to come together. . . .

Our priority is offshore, trying to get the source [of the spill] under control, fight the oil spill, recover as much oil as we can from as far away as we can. We continue to fight that fight. We're protecting the shorelines; we're putting boom around all the environmentally sensitive areas along the coast. If oil should come ashore, we're ready to respond, and we have teams with skimming equipment, and they're ready to pick it up as soon as possible. . . .

At this point, we've received no reports of oil contacting the shoreline in Mississippi, Alabama or Florida. We continue to track the trajectory. We send observers offshore every day to track the leading edge of the sheen. At this point, it's well offshore.

What are lessons learned from five years ago when Katrina and Rita hit?

I think one of the things we've learned throughout multiple disaster response operations, whether it's the World Trade Center or Hurricane Katrina, is that we must come together in unified command. It can't be one agency or entity responding. Every agency has their expertise, and we value all of those talents in a response. We have to communicate with each other and have a common language. . . .

It's amazing when you bring in all these different agencies with all this expertise from NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] doing the trajectory analysis of where the oil is going to go. You have U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service working on the resources at risk. We have National Park Service involved. OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration], the state agencies, the local boards of health, all the way down to the community volunteers. It's a massive undertaking.

How many people does this take?

Oil spill response is a pretty massive undertaking. It's very labor intensive. We have thousands of people working on this. We have well over 100 boats, from small boats pulling containment booms into the water to large offshore vessels. . . . We have people that have been walking the beaches doing an assessment who can tell the difference between what's there before and what's there after. . . . We're really focused on environmentally sensitive areas, marshlands and wetlands with migratory bird paths.

Officials have been taking suggestions from local residents on how to protect sensitive areas. Do you have an example?

We have, for example, a person in Pensacola, [Fla.], who said we need to protect an area that we don't think is covered, so we went out and looked at it.

Another example is we're giving volunteers training . . . on how to help out. . . . If you're not experienced, we'll train you how to make sure you stay out of the impacted areas, and you might have support roles. For the commercial entities who want to respond, they may have volunteer vessels, and they'll take out absorbent materials and put them out in shallow areas.

How are the locals responding?

I sense frustration. They want to do something. It's kind of like waiting for a hurricane. You have an unknown, an oil spill, but it is an unknown . . . if it's going to come ashore and what it will look like. . . . One thing I can tell you is we've been very blessed that the offshore work has prevented any shore impacts so far and that the weather has helped so far. We're 10 days into this; early on the fear was that we'd have an immediate shoreline impact, and that hasn't come to fruition so far.

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