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

Volunteers eager to clean up the devastated Louisiana coast are frustrated by a lack of official response to their offer, but are finding alternative ways to help.

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By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

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.

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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.


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