Gulf: A Different Disaster Response

Article Published: Aug. 19, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Gulf: A Different Disaster Response

Dr. John Pine

To Dr. John Pine, the Gulf Coast Spill is not just a headline. It's personal.

"I moved here in January 2009 from LSU (Louisiana State University), and I worked at the university there for 30 years," he said.

And it's not over. Even though he's back in his office at the geography department at Appalachian State University, he knows the implications of what he saw at the Gulf are still very real for the place he used to call home.

"I think there will be economic and social implications," he said. "The environmental implications, at this point, I think it's too soon to even judge that."

But not too soon for people to make assumptions. Fishermen have returned to the Gulf, but Pine knows that doesn't mean the problem is over. After all, disasters are his expertise. Pine's field of study dealt with hazards and disasters. It's what sent him to the coastline when hurricane Katrina ripped its way through, and it's what sent him and fellow ASU professor Chris Badurek to the Gulf this summer.

"I worked with a Native American community that lived 25 minutes south of New Orleans," he said.

It's a community whose livelihood depends on fishing, shrimping and oyster farming.

"They have their own perspective on this," Pine said.

It's a perspective that others have difficulty understanding.

"I question what appears in the media," he said, "that everybody's going back fishing. Well, I really question that. I think looking at it, when they come in, do they have full loads? What's the quality of the fish, and have the fish and shrimp and oysters been impacted? I'm anxious to see what the data is ... local people, they would tell you stories that would get you very upset."
And full data figures may not be in for quite some time.

"It's interesting that BP would just assume that everybody understands that they fixed it," he said. "The leaking, much of it has been recovered. Many of us question what is going to be the long term impact on fishing and the environment ... there's a tremendous amount of disbursements involved in this. There will be many, many people looking at the Gulf of Mexico to determine whether there have been significant impacts ... we learned that from the Alaskan spill (Exxon-Valdez)."

The reason Pine was at the coast? To talk to responders about how they are using satellite and remote sensing technology in disaster response. "What they were doing is just rather remarkable," Pine said.

He's not just referring to the satellite technology. He's also referring to the ease of information flow in regards to the remote sensing technology.

"I was quite impressed with what NOAA (National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration) was doing using that satellite information and remote sensing and making that available to the public," he said.

And the information is important, particularly for people whose lives depend on the Gulf.
"I talked to officials at the federal level and at the state level, and then we observed what BP was doing in their emergency response section," he said.

He observed a completely different animal than Katrina.

"This is not a presidential disaster declaration, even though it's a horrific environmental disaster, and the reason is the statute that governs this," Pine said. "If you have a responsible party like BP, they're responsible for the response and any cost associated with it."

These regulations came in direct response to the Exxon-Valdez spill in 1989.

"The president doesn't declare a disaster, because that brings in all the federal agencies," Pine said, and the federal cost of assistance.

"None of that was activated ... so, if you had a small business or were an individual who needed some kind of help, you had to go to BP, and BP had to gear up to handle this. State agencies did not respond unless they were part of the actual water response or the coastal response. They did not activate things unless they could be reimbursed by BP."

In other words? Unless it was a nonprofit agency, no one wanted to help without a guaranteed reimbursement from BP.

"It was a real strange type of disaster," he said. "You just didn't see federal agencies down there unless they were Fish and Wildlife or NOAA."

Not even FEMA could take the reins. The government had a completely different role in this disaster than in Katrina.

"Their roll isn't to clean it up, it's to look over the shoulder of the responsible part and make sure it happens," Pine said. "Given the size of the disaster, it was quite a contrast to how public agencies and non-profits assist in local communities and people affected by this. It was really quite a contrast to what our normal experience is."

And, to Pine, whose heart will always be connected to the Gulf Coast community, it was more than unsettling.

"Normally, very active local communities where you would see a lot of people ... they were just only response workers," he said. "Those people were not around because they couldn't fish. Their area was off limits. They weren't around and it was weird. It was like a ghost town."

It was a ghost town complete with closed restaurants, a lack of tourists and an eerie Katrina-esque feel.

"It was more than just saddening," he said. "It was so odd to see how the response was being handled and so many workers out."

While it might surprise news watchers, he didn't actually see the oil. He didn't see blackened beaches or tar balls, but he did see tragedy. He saw people forced from the ocean that provided their livelihoods.

"It's just too soon to judge what's going to happen," he said.

The disaster is already affecting businesses in the High Country. Mike's Inland Seafood is one restaurant that depends on the fishing industry for survival, and it's feeling the strain.

"It makes it hard to make a profit when you're paying twice as much for product," co-owner James Mizner said.

The same Gulf Coast shucked oysters that cost him $38 dollars cost nearly $70 today. "Oysters are outrageous," he said.

And Mizner's looking at other options for shrimp, as well. While much of his fish comes from the Atlantic, oysters and shrimp are a big part of his business. So far, he's just absorbed the cost, but don't be surprised to see the losses reflected in the menu.

In the meantime, he has one ear on the news ("I listen to it every day") and a glare in the direction of BP.

"I wouldn't fill up my gas tank with their gas," he said.

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