Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Team Blogger: Dina Abdulhadi

We rolled into Mobile, Alabama early this morning for our last major day of interviews. As a science major, I was still mourning not being able to talk to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, but I think we got a good collage of perspectives from the island and were ready to talk to some organizations.

We first talked to Kate Johnson from Hands on South Alabama. The group previously handled hurricane volunteer response but was asked by state government to help mobilize volunteers for the spill. People from across the country tried to volunteer, but response was greater than need, as BP mostly needed skilled workers. Volunteers did beach sweeps to identify oil wash-ups, tarballs, and injured wildlife along the coasts and reported GPS points to BP for clean-up (for liability, if you pick up a contaminated substance, you are responsible for its disposal). She stated that, after the spill, emergency response coordination included more grassroots organization participation. Their volunteer database expanded to associate specific volunteers to their skills and previous volunteer experience that can be used in future disaster response. They also created financial literacy programs for the community in an effort to keep more tax returns in the community and help modest means people file taxes for free.

Next, we talked to Eliska Morgan, district office coordinator to Congressman Jo Bonner, the Representative that serves Coastal Alabama. Her office deals with constituent services. She described a timeline starting with the Coast Guard response (set by the OPA as the Unified Command Force for oil spills). They coordinated stakeholders for regular meetings, which ended just two months ago. Following the Coast Guard’s leadership, the Gulf Coast Recovery Office, headed by BP, took over operations.

She of course talked about the claims process. The government was asking BP to streamline the process, but she expressed frustration of the process under Feinberg in that claims are slow and meager for those who actually need it. In her opinion, BP did not have the capacity to handle as many claims as they received. Transparency is opaque at best; no information has been released on the claim process—how they decide what claims get approved and how much is granted—under either BP or the GCCF, meaning that we cannot even compare their relative efficiencies. She did note that, under BP’s control, claimants at least had access to BP accountants and were able to meet face-to-face to discuss their situation, whereas under Feinberg, everything is done through paperwork. Constituents are frustrated with inconsistencies in claim granting. In many cases, people right on beach who were intuitively affected by the oil spill were rejected while people further inland were granted relatively large sums.

I asked her about national concern for the region, and she said that the nation has moved on. This has been a double-edged sword for the region; the national perception that “everything’s over and alright” is needed for the economic recovery of the region but also makes it hard to push through legislation for needed recovery efforts.

After lunch, we met with some representatives of the local Sierra Club chapter. David Underhill, the Political/Environmental Chair for the chapter, rephrased the “oil spill” as an explosion: “spill” trivializes the gravity and longevity of the environmental concerns and made out the issues as easily resolvable. They claimed that the main response from environmental agencies had been janitorial and focused on returning to “business as usual” rather than addressing the long-term effects of a petroleum-based economy. They would like to see more environmental literacy and emergency preparedness courses incorporated into higher education, more research on deep-sea biodiversity, and green energy policy development. But mainly, they would like to see government environmental agencies do their jobs and enforce regulations.

Our last stop for today was the Mobile Register. They have sought to be the voice of the people directly affected by the oil spill in response to the national media. The editor claimed that their coverage on the claims process for locals has caused Feinberg to reconsider the operation’s setup. They estimated that about one-third of claimants were still aggrieved. The Register itself may file a claim in the future, but they are receiving ad revenue from BP and, not surprisingly, from trial lawyers across the country.

Bill Raines’, the paper’s environmental reporter, perspective particularly stood out to me. He started reporting on oil rigs in the Gulf and related environmental concerns long before Deep Horizon. He brought up some toxicology concerns related to the drilling process (get your hands dirty with some mud) and bird migration concerns: on cloudy nights, birds migrating north will circle the rigs until the sun rises, often collapsing from exhaustion and falling into the water to be eaten before they can reach land. Since the industry creates the standards for safety, inspections, and environmental precautions, “regulation” is mostly just a show. His suggestion for reducing future impacts is to require response equipment be bought and stored nearby any rig before its construction.

He also was able to shed some light on my research interest. Ecological research has been a source of contention following Deep Horizon, as statistics coming in about oil presence in the ocean and potential effects differ between BP, government agencies, and academics. He mentioned BP literally trying to “buy up” scientists, offering them lucrative contracts that forbid them to publish data publically and banning specific research topics. He recommended dropping ties between political interest and the funding for research, using local scientists who have long-term experience with the affected ecosystem, and shifting the questions posed toxicology research from “does it die immediately?” to issues of sterility/fertility, developmental effects, and changes in food webs. Hopefully I will be able to develop some models to preserve academic rigor and integrity in applied ecology.

Overall, this was probably my favorite day yet, and I have a lot of leads to follow-up on. Tomorrow we will be talking with one more environmental organization, then we are headed back to Athens!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Day 3: Mobile

We spent our final day on Dauphin Island finishing interviews with locals. We were lucky enough to secure an interview with Mary Lee Montgomery, one of BP's local outreach coordinators for south Alabama (at right, with John and Jonathan looking on). Though the bulk of her work is done in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach on the other side of Mobile Bay, she has a local perspective on the cleanup operation, having lived in Mobile for 30 years. She was a great source of information about the the actual procedure for the cleanup, which involves a complicated network of machines lifting, sifting, and moving sand (below, with site manager Larry Morris explaining the sand screener).

We rounded off our time in Dauphin Island with a visit to Bellingrath Gardens, the former home of south Alabama's first Coca-Cola distributor on the mainland. The gardens included a holiday light show (below, from left: Matt, Jonathan, Anisha, Trevor, Shayna, Katherine, John, and Anisha)!

Our morning commences with a trip back to Mobile, when our interview schedule will begin, as follows:

10:00: Meeting with Diana Brinson, Director of Hands-On Mobile and coordinator of the volunteer response to the spill
11;30: Meeting with Eliska Morgan, District Coordinator for Jo Bonner, Congressman for Alabama's 1st District
3:00: Meeting with editors and reporters of the Mobile Press-Register

Follow our twitter (UGASPIL) for updates on our findings!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Team Blogger: Anisha Hegde

Sunday morning on a small island with a population of 1,500 always begins the same way—with church. So the Rooseveltors decided to divide and conquer three church services (Baptist, Episcopalian, and Methodist) to obtain the full Dauphin Island experience and hopefully get a chance to converse with more locals.

I, along with Dr. Rhodes and Jonathan, chose to attend the Baptist Church. About half of the service attendees consisted of “Snowbirds,” individuals—mostly retirees—who travel down to warmer locals every winter. Most of the snowbirds that venture to Dauphin Island are followers of the migratory pattern of birds, which really reiterated the interconnectedness of preserving the bird habitat and the tourism industry of the island.

The members of the Episcopalian church also paid for us to have “Save Our Gumbo” t-shirts, proceeds from which go to individuals affected adversely by the spill. These t-shirts are stocked by Mack 'n' Dd's Emporium, whose owner—Mack Russell—granted us an interview. According to Russell, his business this summer was down 80% from the year before, a real loss for a business that has only been around for two years and was hoping to attract regular summer customers from all around the country interested in purchasing locally made trinkets and art.

Russell did file a claim with BP and with the government in order to get compensated, but according to him the biggest problem is that the island residents “just don’t know” the real impacts of the oil spill and its long-term implications for tourism.
“Without clean beaches and habitats for birds, we don’t get tourism. This means bad news for Dauphin Island—an end destination that people don’t pass through in order to get somewhere else.”

Our next interview was with Mary Lee Montgomery, BP’s Community Outreach Coordinator for Alabama. She took us to the west end of the island to see some of the active BP work sites and shared with us a wealth of information concerning the clean up process. She told us that all across the island, workers drill holes into the sand in order to determine where exactly the oil is sitting and then clean affected areas with power screens, giant machines that filter the clean sand from the oil drenched sand. Additionally, we learned that the tar picked up from the sand is oftentimes recycled into asphalt.

Montomgery told us that, so far, BP has given the state of Alabama ¾ of a billion dollars and has voluntarily agreed to level the berms that Dauphin Island erected to keep the oil from reaching farther inland.

Montgomery also gave us a completely different perspective on the oil spill and its implications for the future, a perspective much more optimistic than the opinions were had previously heard. She was formerly a Red Cross worker from Mobile who was contacted by BP for her expertise in dealing with disaster relief, and she emphasized BP’s dedication to hiring locals and making sure that the machine and manual operations still occurring on the island are as least invasive as possible, allowing residents to stroll and walk their dogs on the beach. She also said that the deep cleaning operations going on right now are expected to end by February 1, just in time for Spring Break, and that after the big machines leave, spot cleaning crews will clean up any recurring tar balls.

We were also able to talk to another BP contractor, Larry Morris. He told us that the BP sites were regularly inspected by multiple state and federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. From him, we found out that BP holds a meeting on the island every evening in order to assess the progress each work site is making.

Both Montgomery and Morris seemed to agree that the biggest problem with the clean up process was the uncertainty and inexperience with which all agencies and companies had to approach the issue. “This whole operation has changed from hour to hour,” said Montgomery. “The ocean has literally made the operation fluid.” She also offered her opinion on the long-term impacts of the dispersants, stating that she believed them to be “no worse than baby shampoo,” and emphasized, “BP is a private company. It wasn’t used to being transparent—it didn’t have to be.” She said that after BP realized the benefits of transparency, its relations with affected communities improved greatly.

Our last interview was with Mary Scarcliff, owner of the Lighthouse Bakery, and her husband Daniel Scarcliff. Ms. Scarcliff was the first business owner we had interviewed who had not filed a claim. Like most other people on the island, she blames the media more than BP for the downturn in tourism and the negative image of the gulf. Ms. Scarcliff was instrumental in organizing the BP lunch program, in which local restaurant owners cater for the BP workers. Scarcliff said, “I didn’t want a handout; I wanted to work.” Today, the Scarcliffs’ biggest problem also has to do with the ambiguousness of several BP processes, specifically the billing procedures.

In our down time, the Rooseveltors also visited the beach—building sandcastles, skipping rocks, and attempting to take artsy pictures, a moment ruined by BP vehicles carrying port-a-potties through the sand. We also visited the Magic Christmas in Lights show at Bellingrath gardens, an experience that paralleled any I’ve ever had at Lake Lanier’s or Calloway Garden’s Christmas shows.

Our time on the island has definitely been enjoyable. We were able to see most of the local attractions and gather really interesting insights from everyone we interviewed.

Day Two: Dauphin Island

Yesterday provided interesting insights from local businessmen as well as Dauphin Island's mayor (at right with Dr. Leara Rhodes looking on). After four interviews, we've noticed a pattern in responses--everyone wishes BP had used local businesses to support its cleanup operations and everyone thinks that existing emergency management agencies at the local, state, and federal level could have improved communication between the government, its citizens, and BP.

Despite these early breakdowns in communication--and the common sentiment that this is worse than any hurricane, having affected the national perception of the Gulf--the island remains optimistic about the prospect for a full economic recovery.

Later in the afternoon, the group visited the Alabama Sea Lab Estuarium to learn more about the delicate ecosystem the oil spill has impacted, from Mobile Bay to the maritime forests of Dauphin Island. (Above, from left: Anisha, Dina, Katherine, John, Jonathan, and Trevor on the very seaworthy Miss MayMay. Below, from left: Anisha, John, and Katherine inspect a fish tank).

Today, we plan to continue to investigate the economic impact of the oil spill on the island's inhabitants. Originally we'd hoped to find more businessmen to interview, but they all told us the same thing--it's Sunday, so they can't miss church in the morning. In fact, on Dauphin Island's calendar of events, Sunday School is the only activity mentioned on Sunday morning.

Not to let an opportunity for an interview pass us buy, we're donning our Sunday best and headed to Chaudoin Avenue, the nexus of church activity in Dauphin Island, in hopes of meeting someone interested in talking to us after services.

Following that, we've secured an interview with Mary Lee Montgomery, BP's Director of Outreach for south Alabama. She's coming to us on the island to take us to interview cleanup crews working here, as well as to provide us with BP's official position.

Follow us on Twitter (just search for UGASPIL) to keep up with our adventures in Dauphin Island!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Team Blogger: John Rodriguez

Day two began at around 9:30 in the morning, when the Roosevelters arrived, notepad and pen at the ready, at ACP Real Estate, Inc. The Roosevelters chatted with the president of the rental company, Mr. Kelby Linn, who gave an insider’s look into the after-effects of the oil spill. Mr. Linn admitted that the company was performing outstandingly prior to the oil spill, namely the first quarter, which showed a 45-50% to the previous year’s revenue. By the second week of the oil spill, however, the situation was grim, and due in part to the media coverage of the spill, cancellations of reservations were prominent – at an alarming rate of 90%. At around the same time, he began the claims process, which did not garner him any compensation until October, when the company finally received a substantial payment. Mr. Linn claims that media coverage of the spill had a detrimental effect on the psyche on American people, because the beaches of Dauphin Island have a natural protection due to the outflow of Mobile Bay. According to him, the sensationalism took a harsh toll on tourism in the region. There is hope. Since the well has been capped, there has been a continual increase in sales, and Mr. Linn is optimistic that the business will survive.

After the interview with Mr. Linn, the Roosevelters visited to the local golf course, where the mayor of Dauphin Island is manager. There is no better individual from whom to have acquired an accurate representation of the effects of the oil spill, for Mayor Jeff Collier was born, raised, and has lived all his life on Dauphin Island. According to Mr. Collier, one of the biggest policy mistakes of the oil spill recovery process was that Mr. Obama placed most of the responsibility on BP. He agrees that the company should be held financially responsible, but not physically responsible – that is, for the actual clean up. He made the point that the party that really cares about the condition of an area is that population that lives there, not the corporation itself. Mr. Collier recommends that in future disasters there needs to be a better communication structure and that there is a governmental organization designated to handle the claims process. Mr. Collier does not know when or where the situation is going to end up, and he has come to the realization that the oil spill has been and will be more disastrous than any hurricane in the island's history.

Following the interview with Mr. Collier, the Roosevelters experienced a rather unorthodox interview with the owner of Skinner’s Seafood. It was quick, easy, to the point, and lasted less than fifteen minutes. Mr. Skinner claimed that his biggest concern is whether or not the brown shrimp (which is a big portion of his business) will come back next season. However, BP has responded well to his claims, and although it has lost his paperwork four times, they have compensated him for losses, which were up to 90%.

Dauphin Island Day One

The group at the Seashell Mound!

Our first day in Dauphin Island, we plan to interview local business owners and politicians about the impact of the oil spill on their town's economic health, as well as the effectiveness of BP's and the government's responses. We have an exciting day ahead!

The interview schedule:

9:30- Interview with ACP Real Estate, a company that manages local rental properties
10:30- Interview with the mayor of Dauphin Island, Jeff Collier
12:00- Interview with the owner of Skinner Seafood, a shrimper and businessman

In the afternoon, we will visit Fort Gaines, a Civil War era fort.

Stay tuned for another guest blogger tonight!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Team Blogger: Katherine Garcia

"A shrimp basket for you. Will that be all?"

While Dauphin Island may not be the the most active place during the holiday season, this evening was certainly hopping at the Common Loon when the visiting UGA Roosevelt students arrived. After a visit to the Indian Shell Mounds of Dauphin Island, which did not quite live up to expectations, the Roosevelters settled in for dinner at a local restaurant and were lucky enough to interview the manager, Adam Alford.

Alford, a native to the area, gave a local business owner's insight into the aftereffects of the spill on Dauphin Island's commerce, especially that involving local restaurants and tourism. Though he admits that the food industry was not impacted as much as other industries because people have to eat regardless, that does not mean that his business was not impacted. BP contracted local restaurants to serve food for those assigned to clean up the spill, which helped business prosper but not flourish. Alford compares the aftermath of the oil spill to the disaster of hurricane Katrina. The difference, however, was that the hurricane provided growth and a boom in construction whereas with the oil spill "just needs to be cleaned up."

However, not all is glum in Dauphin Island. As media attention decreases to the area, Alford believes that tourism will increase again and the island will return to a state of normalcy. For everyone, "It's a learning process," says Alford and it appears that it will be this way for a few more months. Oil is not visible where we have traveled on the island, and tends to be further away from where most inhabit, the aftermath of the spill is still very evident in the region.

Tomorrow will consist of further interviews, investigations, and adventures out and about on the island. I cannot wait to see what is in store for the rest of the trip.