Lesson from the Gulf oil spill: Listen to the locals

Up and down the Gulf coast you hear local officials and others complain that they are being ignored in the response to the Gulf oil spill. That must change.

One big lesson from the Gulf oil spill? Involve the locals from start to finish.

From Louisiana to Florida, officials are frustrated and angry about the disconnect between those running the response to the spill and the many communities affected by it.

In the Pensacola Beach area in Florida, for example, one county official told a Monitor reporter that local requests for more federal help with a large oil swath were initially rebuffed because certain kinds of equipment could not be put on a national seashore.

But most of Santa Rosa Island, where Pensacola Beach is located, is a public beach. “How could they not know that?” said Grover Robinson, Escambia County Commission chairman. “How can you fight a war when you don’t let the people on the ground make decisions?”

He’s not alone in his complaint that local expertise is going unheeded or untapped and that the line of command is tangled and slow to respond.

Across the Gulf, cleanup crews hired by BP’s contractors are trained, but many are outsiders who don’t know the location of pelican nesting grounds or the strength and effect of tides. Billy Nungesser, the president of Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana, said at a Senate hearing in June that he still didn’t know who was in charge. “Is it BP? Is it the Coast Guard?”

That’s partly because this disaster response system is different from the organizational structure for a hurricane, which the region is used to. It throws in an extra player, an oil business.

After the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, a new law designated the oil company that causes a spill to be responsible for the cleanup. But its efforts are overseen by a “unified command” run by the Coast Guard. The roles overlap and, when the spill is as huge as the one in the Gulf, the system is overwhelmed.

Encouragingly, both the Coast Guard and BP are trying to bridge the disconnect with locals. The Coast Guard has set up four regional centers and Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander for the spill, has said he’s had to learn Louisiana’s chain of command and the authority of the parishes.

BP, meanwhile, recently replaced its point person on the crisis – Tony Hayward – with a Mississippi man, Bob Dudley. He’s wisely seeking advice from James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose expertise is on-the-ground help.

FEMA has been largely absent from this crisis because of the different response structure in place. In a natural disaster where the president declares a national emergency, FEMA would take the lead – not the Coast Guard.

Local communities feel a disaster’s beginning and are left with the effects of its ending. Perhaps the law that set up this command structure needs to be changed to accommodate very large and ongoing spills. But regardless of the structure, the locals must be heeded and included.

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