Deepwater Horizon Day 5: The Wall Approacheth

I think spill responders understand this title a little too well.  Every spill responder I know has their own personal wall not unlike that of long-distance runners (or so I hear – I tend to run FROM things, not TOWARDS them).

In running, you start out going at a decent clip feeling fat and sassy, then you begin to lag a bit, then you begin to lag a lot, then you want someone to put you out of your misery, then you start to feel better again and life is good.  Spill response is the same type of animal.  You run like crazy trying to set things up, relying on adrenaline & caffeine – synapses firing like mad – and you are able to do five different things at once (and do them all well), with the underlying fear that more animals are going to come in than you are ready for.  At some point, you realize that you have declined to such a mental state that you are having difficulty stringing enough words together to form coherent sentences, you stare longingly at Nicoderm ads on the internet and wonder how they would work for a non-smoker (that is if you have a computer – if not, you stare at Michelle’s patches and dream), and you wake up in the middle of the night tubing birds (sad but true).  This is The Wall.

What is important about this force of nature is recognizing the signs and doing something – anything – to avoid its consequences.  Personally, I have a 4.5 day wall; in each spill, midday through Day 5 I feel its recognizable signs.  Today those signs developed while I was sitting on the floor outside the Wildlife Branch room (a rapidly-developing regular spot for me, as it is quieter), notebook computer in my lap, notebook at my side with my notes, leading a call with 15 other turtle and mammal biologists on our state of readiness, and having complete and utter blank mindedness.  Couldn’t remember the topic, the players, or where the conversation needed to go.  Fortunately, Dr. Teri Rowles, now responder extraordinaire, was on the call sitting across from me (cell phone muted because nothing is worse that the 1 second gap between when you hear what is said in earshot and when it comes across the phone) and was able to take up the slack.  Ah, the Wall, how I curse you.  Clearly, I am back now – possibly with a “runners high” based on the length of this blog post so far without info on the spill…

Today was another good one for the Mammal/Turtle Unit, though the political and media winds are swirling a bit fiercer.  No oiled mammals or turtles were found today (keeping our total collected at 0), but there was quite a bit of confusion regarding the dead turtles that washed ashore outside of Gulfport, MS over the past two days (approx. 20 as of last night).  While we had reported through the Wildlife Branch that these turtles were not externally oiled, that they had washed ashore in an area that typically had strandings, and that we are in the high season for strandings of sea turtles,  there was widespread reporting of them through the media to the point that several camera crews were demanding to film the post-mortem examinations of the animals (including a fairly irate reporter from a major national news outlet berating me on my cell phone when he was denied by the staff of the facility on my prior instructions). Quickly (in an act of either insight or self-preservation), I handed the call over to Teri who, as the Director of NMFS Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Program, had the political clout to quickly send them on their way.  In hindsight now, maybe it was that specific adrenaline surge that propelled me over the wall…

We also spent a great deal of time on establishing protocols for evaluating turtle nesting habitat, methods for dealing with nests both before and after a beach is oiled, and working with cleanup operators to prioritize these habitats and how to avoid delineated nests.  This is going to be a very difficult situation if beach oiling coincides fairly closely with nesting, and also calls into question the effects of protective booms across traditional nesting habitats.  The positive to this is that there are excellent biologists here who have a huge amount of knowledge of turtle ecology, as well as an extensive volunteer network of “paraprofessionals” who yearly survey these beaches to monitor the nests.  With this type of support, I think we stand an excellent chance of dealing with oiled nests and hatchlings if it should happen, when it could have been an extremely difficult undertaking without this level of infrastructure and support.

Lastly, we finally have great news on the training front.  After a complete re-review by OSHA of the “paraprofessional” training program, health and safety trainings will begin tomorrow, and will be fully in operation Wednesday.  I have been working extensively with safety officers Cheryl and Scot (including formally defining the term “paraprofessional” and drafting the language to send to OSHA defending the validity of a 4-hr course to satisfy safety training needs for wildlife workers), who have been as frustrated as me at the delays (well, maybe a little less as I was pretty bent out of shape).  With these courses, coupled with the online offering which should become active tomorrow, we should be fully field operational.  We are fortunate that the animals numbers have held off long enough to allow us to see the light at the end of this tunnel.

Well, clearly my dance with my Wall today did not affect my blogging word count, so I will not fill you in on the other 19 items on the To Do list that are being worked on, or the other five conference calls (again, sad but true) that Teri and I were on.  Until tomorrow…same Bat time, same Bat channel.

– Mike

3 thoughts on “Deepwater Horizon Day 5: The Wall Approacheth

  1. Mike, Your updates are wonderful to read. I find the information very informative. Thank you for your concerned efforts. I realy appreciate your hard work during this oil spill event. Remember to take care of yourself!

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