In 10 years since oil spill, lessons for coronavirus response

In 10 years since oil spill, lessons for coronavirus response
President Barack Obama gestures during a statement on the Gulf Coast oil spill with federal and state officials, Friday, May 28, 2010 in Grand Isle, La. From left are, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, National Incident Commander for the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Obama, U.S. Coast Guard Adm. James Watson, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. (Source: (AP Photo/Evan Vucci))

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

Today marks 10 years since the Deepwater Horizon explosion and resulting oil spill that wreaked environmental and economic havoc along the Gulf Coast.

It sure doesn’t seem like 10 years. I was working for Gov. Bob Riley as his press secretary at the time and, in 15 years of working in politics, I still consider the work we did in response to the oil spill some of the most challenging and formative of my career. What made the oil spill different from previous or succeeding disasters, including tornadoes and hurricanes, is that the spill was ongoing as state and local leaders reacted. When a storm hits, the response begins the day after, and while it may take weeks or even months, the event that caused the damage is in the rear view mirror. That wasn’t the situation a decade ago, and it’s not the case today with the coronavirus in Alabama.

While April 20, 2010 was the date the disaster happened, it would be days before we knew there was oil leaking from a well at the bottom of the Gulf and several weeks before crude actually touched Alabama’s shores. What ensued was a months-long effort to prepare the coast for this slow-moving, but increasingly inevitable threat to the state’s way of life. That, along with its unprecedented nature, makes the oil spill more like the new coronavirus response than any natural disaster. The other day I told Jo Bonner, Gov. Kay Ivey’s Chief of Staff, that in some ways their administration is dealing with an oil spill, but it’s in every county of the state and this one kills people.

Of course, Jo remembers 10 years ago. He was congressman for Alabama’s 1st District, which includes the coast, at the time and heavily involved in the state’s efforts to prepare, respond and clean up. Bonner is well known as an unfailingly nice and polite person, and he would often play the good cop to Riley’s bad cop with these federal officials or BP executives who weren’t delivering on the promises they made. All except for one time, as I recall. This is a good story.

Just like today with ventilators and PPE, one of the biggest challenges during the oil spill was obtaining resources. Every gulf state was after as much protective boom as they could get their hands on, as well as oil skimmers and other cleaning gear. Riley had a team of people scouring the globe for the best kind of boom that could actually create a barrier and protect a shoreline, finally having success with the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain. Using BP money, the state ordered miles of this heavy-duty, Navy-grade boom that sits three feet above the water and three feet below, much better than the flimsy 18-inch boom that a decent wave could wash away. The governor had planned to deploy the boom along with skimmers at the entrance of Mobile Bay and Perdido Bay to protect the state’s sea life estuaries. But, before the boom could be put in place, the U.S. Coast Guard seized it from a warehouse in Theodore and took it to Louisiana where President Barack Obama was set to have a press conference. There was no good cop that day, as both Bonner and Riley tore into Retired Admiral Thad Allen, who the president had put in charge of the oil spill response. I’d never seen Riley or Bonner that angry. But their anger was righteous and justified. They were trying to protect the state and the federal government took that opportunity away. It was a frustrating time. Here was this silent killer floating toward the state and all the money and government involved couldn’t stop it.

Alabama never got its boom back. Once it lay in the water off the coast of Louisiana, a backdrop for a federal photo opp, it couldn’t be easily or quickly redeployed. Oil came ashore in Alabama 10 days later.

There are surely many lessons from the oil spill that can apply to this current coronavirus outbreak, but one that sticks out to me, illustrated by the story above, is the fact that there are many things that you just can't control. Try as you may, there will always be an X factor you didn't anticipate or something you were promised go unfulfilled. That's the nature of unprecedented events. I'm sure if, God forbid, we had a do-over on the oil spill, everyone from federal, local and state officials would do a lot better job, and likewise with coronavirus. You gather the best people around you, take in the best information available and make a decision based on the resources you have.

Another lesson from the oil spill is that this, too, shall pass. There were times in the summer of 2010 when it seemed like the oil was never going to stop coming and that lives would be forever ruined in Mobile and Baldwin counties. To be sure, the impact was devastating for the area and its tourism and seafood industries. The state's tax revenue and budgets were hurt, as they will be with the coronavirus. But the state eventually recovered, and the same will be true this time around.

The size and scope of the coronavirus outbreak as well as the life and death stakes dwarf the oil spill by comparison. But, there are interesting parallels that perhaps offer some hope as to how it all ends. In each case, it is increasingly clear that we are better off when we work together, listen to each other look out for one another's best interest in fighting a silent enemy we did not invite. So let's continue doing that.

Todd Stacy is the publisher of the Alabama Daily News. He previously spent 15 years working in politics and government at the state and federal levels. Email him at todd@aldailynews.com.

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