"I've been near what I believed to be a big dirt clod in the muck. Then it blinks. And you realize: It's an oiled bird."
Debbie McGuire, wildlife director at the Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center here in Huntington Beach, is talking about what it's like on an oil spill recovery mission. McGuire is one of the best when it comes to saving animal lives amid catastrophes like the BP spill, and she soon may find herself in the Gulf.
"I got a call right when it happened to check my availability," she says. "The Oiled Wildlife Care Network called me, and so now, I'm just in a holding pattern. I could be headed down there anytime. But we are trained and ready, and while this is what we prepare for, I've never seen anything quite like this. This is unprecedented, a gushing volcano of oil spewing at least 50,000 barrels per day."
Debbie is frustrated, as much of the country is right now. BP has misled, obfuscated and deceived the public at many turns when it comes to being upfront about what exactly is happening. Our government was slow to respond, and its response has been inefficient and bureaucratic manner. To me, much of the cleanup and response operation has seemed rudderless and lacking leadership.
The same things are bothering Debbie.
"They need every vessel, from any and every country, period," she says. "Get the military involved. It's clear to anyone watching around the world: This mission is understaffed. Businesses are being lost. And of course, the natural loss is devastating. Prime nesting grounds for the brown pelicans are being wiped out, and they could lose their entire generation of birds this year. When they say they have 44 boats there to clean up, they should have 1,000. Hundreds of us are pre-trained, on standby, and not getting called yet to go there. Something's very wrong."
Debbie has worked on enough local oil spills to know what's how affected animal life is.
"What we see wash up on shore in a tiny fraction of what's being lost," she says. "Birds, turtles, dolphins – as soon as they get filled up with that much oil out at sea, they just sink. We'll never know the real numbers."
Debbie also feels (and I agree with her) that the media must have free access in the area.
"Much of the country was kept in the dark," she says, "but once the images of the oil-soaked birds hit the TV screens, public outcry was certainly heard. BP knew pictures like that would hurt their image, and that is why they had workers sign waivers in the beginning saying they wouldn't talk to the media or take pictures in the field. Thankfully, not all adhered to the waiver, and pictures are getting through the red tape. Now that our government has finally taken the lead, no one needs to listen to the BP rules."
Debbie has already heard stories about the management of information in the Gulf.
"Colleagues in Louisiana were told not to speak to the media, and to only let the Louisiana Fish and Game PIO [public information officer] or other designated speakers answer their questions," she says. In past spills I have been involved with, we were told to only tell the media what we know, and not to give number estimates of how many birds/animals we had in care. That makes more sense, because we wouldn't know the real numbers. We could explain our tasks and share our feelings, but the statistics needed to come from the PIO. Different state, different rules."
Her hope for what will happen as the situation evolves?
"Let's hope that the people living in the area and others will share pictures and concerns," she says. "Today's technology allows avenues like Facebook and YouTube to share the pictures, videos and thoughts. They can also send their videos and pictures directly to the media. I know I've been following a few to try and get more information than I can read in the papers or see on TV. This spill is catastrophic in so many ways, and there is much for all of us to be concerned about. But one thing we shouldn't have to worry about is the truth being told."
I'm not an oil cleanup expert, but I know one thing – if Debbie McGuire were part of the solution down there, a lot more would be getting done. And knowing she's on the case for oil crises that happen locally should provide peace of mind for all of us. She's that good.
Once she heads down to the Gulf, I will stay in
touch with her for this column.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 14 books, including the new "Huntington Beach: Then & Now." You can write him at email@example.com.