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Florida Keys & the Gulf Oil Disaster: Stories Shared and Lessons Learned

Sarah Chasis

Posted December 16, 2010 in Living Sustainably, Moving Beyond Oil, Reviving the World's Oceans, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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The cerulean waters of the Florida Keys are a long way from Gulf of Mexico’s northern end, yet oil from last summer’s tragic Deepwater Horizon spill might have reached them, if not for a serendipitous event -  an ocean eddy obstructed the Gulf’s Loop Current, which typically cycles water south from the Louisiana coast out between the Florida Keys and Cuba. Though short-term disaster was avoided, no one knows what the long-term impacts of the oil spill will be on the Key’s spectacular, but vulnerable environment and interconnected economy.

 Composed of 1,700 islands that stretch 200 miles, the Keys is host to the world’s third longest barrier reef, second only to Australia and Belize. Its coral and mangrove habitats are invaluable, both biologically and to regional tourism and fishing industries.

When the Gulf spill occurred, agencies and citizens in the Keys leapt to action. The unthinkable suddenly happened and had to be responded to fast! , What did this harrowing summer teach us and those in the Keys?

NRDC helped answer this question in a new report released today, compiling interviews with 11 people who were on the frontlines in the Keys—leaders from the Coastguard, the National Park Service, Marine Sanctuary Program, local businesses and environmental groups—as many feared the oil was headed their way. The report explores how they handled the nerve-wracking times, and what they learned, so the region might be better prepared in the face of future oil spill threats.

Here’s just some of what was said and the advice they shared in NRDC’s report, “The Florida Keys Response to the Gulf Oil Disaster”:

  • The Keys needs to be prepared for a spill of the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon that goes on for months, not just a spill from vessel grounding. (Everyone)
  • When it comes to a spill, there needs to be a clear understanding of the hazard, the science and, importantly, the chain of command in the response. Reality needs to be parsed from rumor, and the ensuing reaction should be appropriate to the level of peril. (Capt. Pat DeQuattro, U.S. Coast Guard; Dan Kimball, National Park Service; Billy D. Causey, Ph.D., NOAA; Capt. Tad Burke, Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association)
  • Face-to-face public meetings are essential to open channels of communication, and thus to a community’s trust in those heading up the response to the danger. (Capt. Pat DeQuattro, U.S. Coast Guard; Irene Toner, Monroe County Emergency Management Dept.)
  • The media needs easy access to areas potentially impacted by a spill; then it needs to accurately report on the situation. In the Keys, as everywhere, transparency is crucial.  (Capt. Pat DeQuattro, U.S. Coast Guard; Bob Holston, Operations Dive Key West; Capt. Lara Fox, Danger Charters, Key West; Capt. Tad Burke, Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association)
  • The National Park Service and other agencies should continue table top exercises and drills in the field that rehearse cooperating with other agencies. The more practice, the better the response to the real thing. (Dan Kimball, National Park Service)
  • More booms and other supplies used to combat encroaching oil should be on hand (Karl Lasard, Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association; Dr. David Vaughn, Tropical Research Laboratory); however, it’s equally important not to hoard these resources, should they be needed elsewhere. (Billy D. Causey, Ph.D., NOAA)
  • Agencies and nonprofits should be ready to quickly contain, examine and treat animals affected by an oil spill, especially birds and marine mammals. (Dr. Robert Lingenfelser, Marine Mammal Conservancy)
  • In the event of a spill, the Coast Guard and other agencies should employ the help and advice of local guides and fishermen, who know the nearby ecology and waterways, and have a stake in protecting their homes and livelihoods. (Karl Lasard, Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association; Irene Toner, Monroe County Emergency Management Dept.; Capt. Lara Fox, Danger Charters, Key West; Capt. Victoria Impallomeni-Spencer, Reef Relief)
  • Because of the Loop Current and the Keys’ location at the bottom of the watershed for the Gulf of Mexico, effects from the spill could still be felt in the future. (Capt. Tad Burke, Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association)
  • More research is needed on oil dispersants that aren’t toxic to coral; for example, the dispersant used in the Gulf may be more harmful to coral larvae than the oil itself. (Dan Kimball, National Park Service; Dr. David Vaughn, Tropical Research Laboratory; Capt. Lara Fox, Danger Charters, Key West)
  • The government needs to take more protective measures to prevent spills like this from happening. (Capt. Tad Burke, Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association)

Read the complete stories from the people behind these lessons-learned, and how they arrived at them from their involvement in the Florida Keys’ response to the Gulf spill in our report here.

And stay tuned for a series of posts from me highlighting the individual stories. Their advice and their experience in the Keys have great implication for seaside communities and environmental disaster response the world over.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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