As the toll from the massive BP oil spill grows, would-be volunteers, incensed by images and reports of polluted coastline and oil-covered wildlife, have grown increasingly frustrated by the lack of substantial opportunities to offer help.
Rusty Costanza, The Times-PicayuneAli Copeland, left, with the Copeland Foundation for Cancer Research, helps serves lunch to a worker at an oil spill command center in Lafitte on Tuesday. Several New Orleans area restaurants, businesses and the Jefferson Parish Firefighters Association volunteered their time and brought lunch to workers.
Official cleanup jobs, on land and on the water, belong to thousands of paid contractors hired by BP -- many of them coastal residents whose professions are on hold because of the oil spill. Wildlife rescue and cleanup efforts are conducted by a small cadre of highly specialized workers.
Tens of thousands of people across the country and outside the United States have registered to volunteer through a number of channels -- including BP's volunteer hotline, coastal state governments and various non-governmental organizations -- yet only a fraction of them are being put to work, often performing tasks that seem far removed from the obvious priority of cleaning up the oil spill.
"People are kind of focused on cleaning up the wetlands, but...volunteers are not being assigned to oil-cleaning activities," said Janet Pace, executive director of the Louisiana Serve Commission under the office of the lieutenant governor. Pace said volunteers have conducted "beach sweeps" to clean up trash and debris in advance of the arrival of oil. "We're hearing people's desire to help. We're trying to affirm them for reaching out (but) there are no volunteers working on the beach cleaning up oil."
The people conducting wildlife rescue and cleanup are "paraprofessionals" certified to handle hazardous materials and experienced in wildlife rehabilitation, said David Ringer, spokesman for the National Audubon Society, which is helping coordinate volunteers through the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the agency conducting the rescue work, and Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research and the International Bird Rescue Research Center, which is handling rehabilitation.
'Baby sitting birds'
For untrained volunteers, what's left is clerical work, errand-running or "wildlife transport facilitation," the official name for what has come to be known in volunteer circles as "baby sitting birds," in which a volunteer waits by a boat launch for rescue teams to bring in animals from the field and then waits with the wildlife until a cleanup crew arrives to transport the animals to the Fort Jackson rehabilitation facility, Ringer said.
Though the Audubon Society has mobilized hundreds of volunteers, its database is in the tens of thousands, Ringer said. "So even though we have this huge database of volunteers, the answer for people asking to help often has to be 'not yet,' and we understand that that's very difficult for people to hear when everyone's hearts are breaking."
In response, some would-be volunteers have opted to go outside the official channels and chart their own course of aid.
Taking matters into their own hands
Matthew Tucker and Gordon Rhoads, two post-graduate students living in Philadelphia, became so frustrated by conflicting information about the state of affected areas and volunteer opportunities along the coast that they formed a charity group, Restore the Gulf, at a Memorial Day barbecue and left for New Orleans two days later with the intent of doing something -- anything -- to help.
Going through the official channels, however, proved difficult and confusing.
Tucker and Rhoads, along with another friend, Chistopher Belles, registered through Volunteerlouisiana.gov, a website operated by the Louisiana Serve Commission. The website has garnered more than 8,000 registrations from would-be volunteers, and has referred about 1,500 of them to the commission's affiliated oil spill response charities, Hands On New Orleans, Catholic Charities Archdiocese New Orleans and Second Harvest Food Bank, Pace said. Another database operated by the Gulf Response Involvement Team, a coalition of five regional and national environmental groups, has amassed more than 20,000 registrations, she said.
After receiving an initial e-mail message from the commission acknowledging their registration, Tucker said the trio spoke to an operator who said they could be put to work within days.
"So we came down, and tried contacting (them) again, and we got no response," he said.
John McCusker, The Times-PicayuneMichael Perry of the Humane Society of Louisiana pulls in a glob of oil from Barataria Pass near Grand Isle on Thursday.
Pace said Tucker "would not have gotten that message (to come down) from us," because the commission only funnels volunteers to one of its affiliated charities, but does not confirm volunteer placement. Pace speculated Tucker may have been transferred to another state office or misinterpreted a staffer on the phone.
Pace said the organization doesn't want to discourage volunteers, "because there will be opportunities down the line.''
But, she added, "Our message is clear: Do not come until you've confirmed a volunteer opportunity.''
Tucker and his friends made their own connections by doing online research and cold-calling local charity groups. They attended an unofficial emergency response training course, which they found through Meetup.org, an online hub for groups and clubs. Though the course did not certify them to qualify for positions cleaning oiled wildlife or shoreline, it promised them "the ability to deploy boom," according to organizer Roger Ivans.
NOLA Oil Spill, which is in the process of filing for 501c3 status and has attracted approximately 120 active members, has turned its attention to monitoring wetlands and shoreline for oiled wildlife and contaminated boom in need of replacement, Ivans said.
Finding ways to help
"We took it upon ourselves to go down to Grand Isle and observe and report," Ivans said. "Where we can be of the greatest use is as a watchdog group looking for contaminated boom."
The Humane Society of Louisiana has also sent volunteers into the waters to scout for disabled wildlife and report it to authorities in an effort called "Operation Here to Help,'' Humane Society Director Jeff Dorson said.
Tucker, Rhoads and Belles eventually connected with Catholic Charities, which sent them to relief sites in Lafitte and St. Bernard. There, the volunteer work consisted of "regulating line control" for families of fishers waiting to receive relief, as well as passing out food and setting up tents.
Catholic Charities spokeswoman Margaret Dubuisson said the organization is "not using a tremendous amount of volunteers, but we're using some for clerical positions, like sorting groceries, handing out boxes of food, handing out gift cards to grocery stores, answering phones, making copies and other clerical work."
The organization has been able to mobilize only 70 volunteers, almost evenly split between locals and out-of-town do-gooders, Dubuisson said. When comparing that total to the charity's relief work in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which put more than 25,000 volunteers to work gutting houses, Dubuisson said she understands the frustration and feelings of helplessness.
'A different type of disaster'
"I think people are accustomed to the Katrina volunteer experience, which was very hands-on. But this is such a different type of disaster," she said. "We are putting volunteers to work in the best way we can."
Tucker and his friends have since returned to Philadelphia, filed paperwork to receive 501c3 status and have set to work organizing three fundraisers, the proceeds of which will be donated to groups doing relief work on the ground, Tucker said.
"We're planning an entire year around this," Tucker said. "We are anticipating the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. We are planning a second trip and third and fourth and fifth trips. We are going to be down there."
Read article on-line here