Deepwater Horizon Day 13: Road Trip

Sorry for the blank space where my blog usually is last night.  Internet was down at the hotel I ended up at, and smoke signals really make for long posts.

Yesterday was an eventful day.  After heading to the Houma Command Center and getting some final items done, I was able to hit the road and drive to the Mobile (as in AL, not as in moving) Command Center to speak with Ken, the Wildlife Branch Director for that sector, as well as touch base with Liz, our super NOAA liaison for that post.  As this is a SONS (or Spill of National Significance), as well as spreading out over several states and USCG Sectors, they have set up two regional incident commands (or RICs) – with a third being set up in St. Petersburg, FL – all of which feeds into the area, or national, command (or NIC). The different Groups within the Wildlife Branches at each of the ICCs have taken different approaches based on their activities. The Wildlife Reconn and Recovery Group, lead by USFWS, has established two entirely separate operations in the two sectors due to their acting independently of one another in their operations (as well as working with different State wildlife agencies).  Bird and Mammal/Turtle Care Groups, however, have stayed (for the most part) intact over the entire area (LA to FL), with each species operation working under a separate, but unified, org chart operating multiple facilities throughout the region. So, for example, if we receive a call from a member of the public in Alabama reporting a dead sea turtle on the beach, instead of people having to decide which sector it is in, which Wildlife Branch to speak with, which Turtle Unit to activate, and which facility might respond, it is a single entity throughout the region, with us (in Houma) working directly with each of the Regional Coordinators throughout the Gulf.

This system has its advantages and disadvantages.  For the Mammal/Turtle Unit, as we are utilizing the existing infrastructure created by the excellent Southeast Regional Marine Mammal Stranding Network and the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network, it keeps the structure and oversight that already is present during non spill times.  Also, from a spill management perspective, it allows easy sharing of information and resources within the Group.  This also makes reporting simpler, as there is one set of numbers (versus multiple datasets divided on geographic boundaries). However, it does have a few significant disadvantages. If we want to order, say, 10 cases of Tyvek for our facility in Gulfport, MS, we have to work directly with the Logistics Section based in Mobile, not Houma. The same goes for developing and getting plans approved for aspects of turtle/mammal response that impact the Mobile sector and not Louisiana.

So, in addition to meeting up with Ken and Liz, going to Mobile (and no, I will not use the phrase “going mobile to Mobile”) allowed us as a group to meet with their Operations Section Chief to discuss the extremely important Sea Turtle Nesting plan developed by Sandy MacPherson of USFWS (and the Nesting Coordinator within our Group).  Sea turtles (primarily greens and loggerhead) will be beginning to return to sandy beaches in Alabama and Florida in mid-to-late May. At this point, depending on the spill trajectories, this may be a race to see who (or what) gets to these beaches first. The experts at FWS and NOAA have put together an excellent plan that helps identify nests for clean-up operators (using annual beach surveyors who really know their beaches – and turtles!) and provides strategies to prevent oiling of nests in the first place. Through meeting with everyone in Mobile, discussing training needs for clean-up folks, and emphasizing the need for rapid enacting of this survey and protection plan, we give the female turtles (and the hatchlings) the best chance possible.

On my return from Mobile, I was able to stop in Gulfport to visit the IMMS facility, where we have established one of our four primary turtle/mammal care centers. I met with all of the IMMS staff, the regional turtle stranding coordinator, our NOAA pathologist, our expert turtle vet we had join us from SC Aquarium, and two NOAA enforcement officers, to go over the layout of the facility, additional improvements & equipment/supply needs, and to discuss again the evidentiary and sampling procedures we need to follow during this event. As this is a beautiful facility, I hope we end up not oiling it with incoming turtles or dolphins, but it is very comforting to know that this site has in place (with some simple modifications) what is needed to provide the care necessary for these animals if it does come to pass. My thanks to Moby Solangi and his staff for allowing us to utilize the site in this way.

After this meeting, it was a bit late and my “safety buddy” Dr. Rowles convinced me by phone to stay in Gulfport instead of driving back that night. So I took the opportunity to have dinner (the first one outside of the Houma Command Center since I have arrived) with Greg and Wendy Massey, my mystery guest bloggers last week and the facility coordinators for the Gulfport bird center just 6 blocks away from the mammal/turtle center. It was wonderful to see them again (as they moved back to NC earlier this year), as well as great to compare notes on this spill across species lines.

I headed back to Houma this morning, getting back just in time for conference calls, more planing activities, attempting to finalize necessary supply orders for all of the facilities (and, now that Jackie from NOAA has joined us here yesterday to help on the admin/organizational front, we can’t help but get all caught up), saying goodbye (for now) to Barbara, attending more conference calls, saying hello to Sarah (and, again, if we can’t get organized with Sarah here there really is no help for us), working on finalizing disposal and safety plans, and participating in discussions on NRDA, among other things. And still no apparently oiled turtles or cetacea! Let’s hope it stays that way.

As there was a break in blogging last night, I wanted to get everyone caught up to the present. Tomorrow I promise to hit the issue of the value of oiled wildlife rehab head on.  Stay tuned…

– Mike

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