The April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico set off a gusher of crude oil into the waters — and a powerful flood of volunteers clamoring to help.
And therein lies a problem.
This has been a particularly complex disaster. Volunteers have been kept at arm’s length for the most part — BP itself raised and trained a small army of paid workers to handle most of the immediate tasks, such as laying boom and cleaning birds. And much of the recovery work isn’t as simple as mopping up after a hurricane: it has been hazardous enough to require special training.
“We had to discourage people from jumping in their cars and heading down to the Gulf,” said Delta Willis of the National Audubon Society. “We had to tell people [the spill] was toxic and you could harm yourself and the wildlife.”
What’s more, many Gulf residents questioned whether an onslaught of volunteers — even if full of good intentions — would have been a boon or bane to the region. Unpaid labor, some feared, would take money out of the pockets of those hired to clean up in lieu of fishing or other local jobs.
So the volunteer experience for many has been this: sign up and then wait for a call that doesn’t come. The supply of volunteers has outstripped the demand.
While the lack of opportunities may frustrate those who dearly want to help, much remains to be done. The oil spill may be “winding down in the media, but by no means is it winding down in terms of problems along the coast,” said Dana Eness, executive director of the Urban Conservancy in New Orleans, which has helped direct volunteers to useful jobs.
Helping hands most likely will be needed for a long time as the Gulf Coast and the lives of those along it gradually recover. Here’s how you can help — if you're patient.
Volunteer for general duty. The oil spill command center, run jointly by the federal government and BP, directs volunteers to the Corporation for National & Community Service. Or you can call 866-448-5816 and an operator will briefly interview you to learn if you have special skills (such as training as an emergency medical technician or in law enforcement). Those without such skills may be asked to perform basic tasks, none of which involves contact with oil — cleaning beaches in advance of potential oil damage, helping with office chores and the like. If you're needed, a volunteer coordinator will contact you.
Volunteers can also register with the Alabama Coastal Foundation — again, with no jobs involving direct contact with oil. Some volunteers work as field observers, surveying the coastline for impacts from the spill.
Help out food banks. Finding it hard to make ends meet, a number of shrimpers, fishing outfitters and other coastal residents are turning to food banks. Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana is soliciting donations of food, money and time. The Bay Area Food Bank, serving the central Gulf Coast, needs volunteers to sort and inspect groceries daily in Mobile, Ala.
Watch birds. The National Audubon Society has signed up more than 30,000 volunteers — although only a fraction of them have been deployed in the field. An Audubon Volunteer Response Center opened recently in Moss Point, Miss., to keep volunteers in the loop.
Limited opportunities include basic tasks. Volunteer photographers and filmmakers may also get occasional assignments to help document the effects of the disaster.
More in demand are skilled amateur birders, who are needed to help monitor the effects of the spill on returning migratory birds, said Mark Lasalle, director of the affiliated Pascagoula River Audubon Center. The Audubon Coastal Bird Survey aims to gauge the effects of the spill on bird life along the Gulf, making it the newest of the society’s “citizen scientist” programs.
Provide pro bono legal assistance. Residents affected by the spill will most likely face a complex legal process, including filing (or appealing) damage claims. Once disbursement of the $20 billion compensation fund is mapped out, legal aid groups anticipate a need for volunteer attorneys to consult with low-income residents and to lead community workshops. To volunteer, call the Mississippi Center for Justice at 288-435-7284.
Give money. Cash donations to aid long-term recovery are appreciated. But beware: With disaster comes charity relief movements, and with charity relief movements comes, unfortunately, scam artists. If you make an online donation, be sure the website ends with ".org," not ".com." A good place to go is CharityNavigator.org, which sifts through charities to evaluate their legitimacy. Your best bet may be to check whether national charitable organizations you normally support have a program targeting Gulf recovery. Or you can donate to the Greater New Orleans Foundation, which is channeling 100 percent of donations to groups aiding Gulf communities.
Take a vacation. Just as New York City needed tourist dollars to help rebound after 9/11, and New Orleans after Katrina, so does the Gulf Coast need visitors now. Innkeepers, restaurateurs and seafood suppliers have seen their businesses put at risk. By helping them, you’ll help the region recover.