Members of the Sea Grant oil spill science outreach team stayed close to home to host Prioritizing Health and Oil Spill Preparedness in Houma, Louisiana on December 4 and 5. The two-day event was the inaugural workshop in the Regional priority setting for health, social, and economic disruption from spills series, the first of five the team is holding around the country. The next workshop in the series is scheduled for February 20 and 21 in Anchorage, Alaska, with more following in California, Virginia, and Alabama.
According to event-organizer Chris Hale of Texas Sea Grant, Houma was the perfect location to kick off these workshops. “Houma is a special place,” she said, adding that a unique mix of oil industry workers, tribal communities, and fishing families call it home permanently, while others transfer on and off offshore oil rigs for work. “Regardless, I get the sense that in the Houma-Terrebonne area everyone is tied in some way to the surrounding natural resources, and for some, success is also connected to the well-being of family, friends, and neighbors. Over time these folks have experienced and continue to endure many types of disasters—hurricanes, floods, spills, and land loss to name a few—and in Houma there is a sense of endurance despite these challenges.”
The event brought nationally recognized experts on oil spill response and impacts to present what they know to interested residents. Speakers explained the existing emergency response framework as well as new science-based information regarding mental, physical, economic, and social health impacts from spills. Liesel Ritchie, Associate Director, Center for the Study of Disasters and Extreme Events at Oklahoma State University, began studying community impacts after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. She spoke on what sociologists know about the psycho-social impacts of human-caused disasters.
“The challenge of the work social scientists do,” said Ritchie, “is that at some level it appears to be stating the obvious. But it’s the systematic way we collect the data that puts us in the position to speak authoritatively as opposed to just repeating anecdotes.”
A strength of the workshop was the diversity of speakers. In addition to those from the research and response world, Point-au-Chien tribal member Theresa Dardar shared both local history and ecological knowledge. But she also communicated the feelings she had after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill about being afraid to eat the seafood her family had relied on for sustenance for generations. As the series continues, both Hale and Ritchie spoke to the importance of continuing to have local speakers as part of the workshop series. Ritchie said, “In a situation like this, it’s important to give time to a range of voices within a community.”
The workshop audience formed breakout groups multiple times during the exercise. “We hoped to foster discussion about the health-related issues and needs of western Gulf communities that have been and continue to be impacted by oil spills,” explained Hale. The breakout sessions also gave attendees an opportunity to form new connections and partnerships and to brainstorm potential project ideas.
“I think the breakout discussion sessions were extremely valuable,” said Hale. “The small group format enabled participants to really dive deep into topics important to them and their communities, which in turn will help me and my team report out on what the specific priorities are for improving the well-being of folks in spill-impacted areas such as Houma.”
Since one of the focuses of this workshop series is identifying regional differences in oil spill impacts and the needs they create, organizers know that the upcoming Alaska event could have a very different feel. According to Ritchie, unlike Houma, where memories of Deepwater Horizon are relatively fresh, Alaska is into the next generation of spill survivors.
“That being said, it’s a kneejerk reaction to say, ‘That was a long time ago in a different place,’” said Ritchie. “There are some striking similarities in what individual communities went through. We can still learn a lot.”
The decades that have passed since the 1989 Valdez spill have allowed Alaskans to work actively to refine their oil spill infrastructure. They have created effective processes they were happy to share with Gulf Coast residents after Deepwater Horizon. On an institutional level, representatives from Alaska Sea Grant reached out to Gulf of Mexico area programs to offer assistance in understanding the best ways to help impacted communities. On a more personal level, young Alaskans working in the fishing industry reached out over social media to their colleagues in the Gulf.
“Working with our sister Sea Grant programs in other regions enables my project team to communicate with the people that have been impacted or are likely to be impacted by spills,” said Hale. “This is crucial in understanding the differences and similarities in those areas, which will ultimately inform planners as they work to improve spill preparedness in the context of human health and well-being. ”
Featured image: Oil spill specialist Emily Maung-Douglass of Louisiana Sea Grant listens as a breakout group of audience members and speakers discuss aspects of oil spill preparedness in the northern Gulf of Mexico. (Gulf of Mexico oil spill science outreach team/Tara Skelton)
The Sea Grant Oil Spill Science Outreach Program is a joint project of the four Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant College Programs, with funding from partner Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative. The team’s mission is to collect and translate the latest peer-reviewed research for those who rely on a healthy Gulf for work or recreation. To learn more about the team’s products and presentations, visit gulfseagrant.org/oilspillscience.