Sea Grant Response to the Deepwater Horizon Disaster

by Catherine Schmitt

Extension and outreach is a big part of Sea Grant. The very nature of extension is to get information to the people on the coast, and to bring information and research needs from the people on the coast to the researchers and government scientists whose job it is to address the needs of the public. Because Sea Grant isn’t a regulatory agency, we have the flexibility to respond to sudden needs, which is exactly what happened after the hurricanes and the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

“We’re getting awfully good at responding to disasters,” said Chuck Wilson, Executive Director of Louisiana Sea Grant. “One of our greatest assets is the unity of the programs in the region.”

When Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike, and Gustav left the Gulf waters strewn with abandoned boats, Sea Grant was there. When corporate and government handling of the oil disaster was clouded by misinformation and frustration, Sea Grant was there to get people together and get information moving.

The Gulf Coast Sea Grant Programs immediately reached out to Alaska to learn from their experience with the Exxon Valdez, a move which proved crucial. With some 40 extension specialists on the coast from Texas to Florida, Sea Grant staff nimbly moved in to crisis communication mode, helping to organize town hall meetings, distribute maps of fishing area closures to fishermen, provide information about seafood safety, and jointly launch the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Resources website.

Louisiana Sea Grant Fisheries Specialist Julie Anderson was embedded within National Incident Command, the federal agency hub, whose daily briefings could then be disseminated to extension staff much faster than information coming from NOAA or state agencies.

The lack of information–and abundance of misinformation–resulted in the corrosion of public trust in government.

And it’s not over. People who live on the Gulf Coast are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological effects of the oil disaster—coupled with lingering effects of the hurricanes—with three suicides related to the BP oil release. Respected community leaders are being trained in “peer listening” and Cooperative Extension is being tapped for their expertise in family health matters, because the greatest impact of natural and “technological” disasters isn’t on the ocean, but on the people whose livelihoods depend on the ocean.