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Posts tagged ‘disaster’

Get It Right This Time

As I write this, the folks at British Petroleum are going ahead with plans to shove mud and eventually cement down the mouth of their leaking Gulf of Mexico well.  I’d love to tell you that I have more faith in this version of a solution (Plan G? Plan H?) than the rest, but history isn’t on our side.   So far, BP and the people managing the leak seem pretty good at developing plans and holding news conferences, but not too good at actually succeeding at much of anything.

To recap (pun strictly intended), BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform failed catastrophically on April 20th and sank in 5000 feet of water, taking the lives of eleven of her crew and tearing open the well bore, causing it to gush uncontrolled into the Gulf waters.  There were repeated attempts to stem the flow – some traditional (blowout preventer), some not (top hat, junk shot, top kill) – but all were unsuccessful.  A temporary cap was put in place on July 15th, limiting the flow to some seepage from the seabed, but no one’s sure just how long the cap can last.  Relief wells are still being drilled, but are several weeks away from completion.  Even if today’s effort to kill the well is successful, the relief wells will be completed to kill it deeper and decrease the likelihood of later failure.

If there’s any good news in all of this, it’s that the visible damage is far less than I or most others were expecting.  Having watched the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, I was prepared for lots of oil on the beaches, but it seems that most areas have little more than tar balls.  Even the areas closest to the blowout along the lower coast off Louisiana seem to have fared far better than anyone could have hoped.  Perhaps it’s the difference in distance from shore between the spill in Prince William Sound (half a mile offshore) versus the Gulf (50 miles), or maybe I’m just watching the wrong newscasts.  Maybe it’s all sitting just offshore waiting for the skimmers to finally arrive … or the first big hurricane. Whatever the cause, it’s a blessing.

Of course, that’s just the visible oil.  Experts have said that the great depth of the blowout has resulted in huge amounts of oil mid-ocean, far below the surface, where cleanup is impossible.  No one has any idea just how that is going to impact the Gulf, both now and far into the future.  There’s also a great deal of concern over the use of chemical dispersants that were used to try and break down the oil.  They were used extensively, and the concern is that you are simply trading one chemical demon for another.  In any case, much like the sites of past disasters, we will be dealing with the results of this disaster for many years to come.

For now, let’s just get the damned thing capped.

Whatever Happened To Real Fishermen?

I think everyone understands that fishermen are a pretty tough lot. Long before The Discovery Channel turned crab fishermen into rock with “Deadliest Catch” or George Clooney got flipped ass over teakettle in “The Perfect Storm,” the public knew that it’s a pretty special person who will get on a boat and sail over the horizon in search of food or riches. Commercial or recreational, fisherman understand that long before land disappears off their stern, their fates are in their own hands and whether they come home or not will depend heavily on a combination of skill and luck.

So how exactly did the first people to arrive on the scene after the DEEPWATER HORIZON drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico turn out to be a boatload of opportunistic sissies?

Bradley Shivers and the crew of the 31-ft RAMBLING WRECK were fishing near the rig when the fire broke out and MAYDAY calls filled the radio. The Coast Guard urged any boats nearby the rig, located 50 miles offshore, to respond to the disaster. The RAMBING WRECK stowed the fishing gear and headed toward the flames. It was everything they feared it would be …

The 20 minutes it took the fishermen get to the rig felt like forever.

What are we going to see when we get there? Shivers thought.

The men kept communicating with the Coast Guard, describing their coordinates and what they were hearing over their radio as they closed in on Deepwater Horizon.

For a second, just a second, disbelief gripped them. Flames blazed across the water’s surface, jumping 500 feet. And the heat….

People were flailing in the current, hurt, screaming. Others clung to life boats.

“We’ve got friends that are missing,” someone shouted. “Please go search!”

The Deepwater Horizon was enormous, its destruction so vast that the friends had to keep using their binoculars. “You’d see something floating in the water and we’d go up and try to find out what it was. You know, is it a person?” Shivers recalled.

I’m sure becoming a sudden participant in such a disaster would be a frightening experience, one that someone could retell over the years with a great sense of pride and accomplishment. Instead, these guys are on anti-anxiety medications and talking about suing BP.

“We could have been sitting under that rig,” Mead said. “We could have been on the victims’ list.”

He said he’s taking anti-anxiety medications and though he rarely fought with his wife, he says he’s gotten short with her lately.

Only adding to the stress, Mead said, the BP oil spill has destroyed his charter ship business.

They have left messages with BP and Transocean’s hot lines and claims departments and sent e-mails to the companies, Shivers said.

“‘Hey guys, we were there. Can we tell ya what we saw? Can we, you know … I may have information that can help ya’ll out,'” Shivers said, describing his messages. “Zero calls. Nothin’. No one’s ever called us back.”

The men say they are suing BP for emotional distress.

Everyone who runs a boat – regardless of type, size or purpose – understands that the first priority of any oceangoing captain is to preserve the life of those in distress. It doesn’t matter if it’s a French fishing boat plucking Abby Sunderland off her damaged sailboat thousands of miles from shore, a marlin boat rescuing a downed spotter pilot off Catalina or fishermen called to save wildcatters about to burn to death – you drop what you’re doing, you do what you have to do, and you don’t whine about it. I don’t doubt it’s an experience that will stay with you for life, and I applaud the men for responding to the call.

It would be one thing if the fishermen suffered injuries in the rescue attempt, or the boat was damaged or they were dragging dead bodies out of the water. Perhaps it’s just the way the article was written, but there’s no evidence the crew did anything other than stand by – I’d think if they were plucking oil-soaked workers out of the water, you’d hear about it. These guys sound as if their biggest complaint is that they weren’t paid proper attention to by BP – and, until now, the media. The sad part is that in the end, there’ll be a fat check written to reward these slackers for doing what every boater I know wouldn’t think twice about doing – and wouldn’t consider complaining about afterward.

Sad indeed.

Your Own Personal Katrina

Has it really been five years since Hurricane Katrina tried to wipe New Orleans off the map? Seems like just the other day that the opposition party was berating the President over his slow response to a disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Or perhaps I’m confusing it with … just the other day, when the opposition party was once again berating the President over his slow response to a disaster in the Gulf of Mexico …

In the aftermath of Katrina, as many residents of the Gulf Coast struggled to survive – and some failed – the federal government came under a lot of criticism for not being better prepared for such a disaster, and for not responding faster once the magnitude of the disaster was clear. After a few days of inactivity and speeches (including the infamous “Brownie, You’re Doing A Heck Of A Job” debacle), the National Guard arrived with food and water and picked up the slack of rescue and relocation. But the damage was done in the perception of the public.

Five years later, disaster has returned to the shores of Louisiana – only this time, it’s strictly man-made. On the night of April 20, the offshore drilling platform DEEPWATER HORIZON exploded, killing eleven crew members. Two days later, the platform sank 50 miles offshore, and shortly thereafter the first oil was found leaking from the cracked drill rig. Blowout preventers should have sealed the well but didn’t, and thousands of gallons of oil were spewing out of the damaged wellhead a mile underwater. An ecological disaster of unmatched proportion was developing, and all eyes turned to the government to evaluate their response.

Give the Obama administration credit – they learned from the barbecuing of their predecessors that perceptions count. From the very beginning, there were briefings and news conferences and a steady stream of Administration representatives heading into the region – they even established their own web site. Like the Katrina disaster, there was a lot of talk of who was to blame and how to best investigate the disaster. But once again, the federal government is showing that while they might be great at making speechs or holding hearings, they suck at action. They talk about holding BP responsible, but where’s the army of people hired to clean the beaches – hell, it’s not like there isn’t anyone unemployed in the region. Where’s the Coast Guard commandeering a fleet of boats to lay boom around the sensitive wetlands and harbors? Where’s the action?

It’s clear that this administration doesn’t understand deepsea oil drilling any more than the last understood the engineering challenges of building a hurricane-proof levee. And frankly, I don’t expect them to know everything about the topic – that’s why you bring in experts to help you craft the proper oversight. But all of that is a discussion for another day. What needs to happen now, as we enter the sixth week of the disaster, is action – positive action to mitigate damage.

There’s a lesson in this for the politicians who would love to use it to make political points, just as there was a lesson in Katrina. That lesson is this: leading the country is hard. Circumstances will jump up periodically and kick you square in the crotch. Whether 9-11, Katrina, Haiti or DEEPWATER HORIZON, the pain will drive you right to your knees. People will forgive that reaction, but it’s what happens next that matters – how do you respond to the pain to resolve the situation. That’s what we’re waiting to see.