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Coordinating Volunteers Key to Oil Spill Response

By Lou Kellenberger


Tallahassee, FL – Tens of thousands of Floridians want to help with the oil spill, although so far their roles are limited. But as the early impact of the disaster hits the Panhandle, Florida's volunteer services are thinking strategically and digging in for the long haul. Margie Menzel reports.

It's a slow-motion disaster, unfolding in scenes of devastation. Floridians want to help clean the beaches they love and relieve the suffering animals they watch from their living rooms. But they've been asked not to touch the oil or wildlife without proper training. Volunteer Leon Director Jeri Bush:

"Just because you're not hands-on touching wildlife and helping clean wildlife, there's an awful lot you can do behind the scenes that will be greatly appreciated and help improve people's lives directly affected by this disaster," Bush said.

There's no shortage of volunteers. Since the spill, for instance, Volunteer Florida has mobilized 27,000 volunteers who have worked 12,000 hours cleaning beaches in advance of the spill to reduce the amount of hazardous waste after it hits. Volunteer Florida Chief of Staff Tom Linley, who is used to planning the support after a hurricane, says people can't just rush to an emergency without coordination.

"You may have thousands of volunteers that will descend on a community to help, but they don't live in the community, so therefore they're taking up resources that survivors of the hurricanes might need," Linley said. "And so we're really trying to manage that message, that volunteers are needed in appropriate ways. The area of volunteerism that we believe will have the greatest need in Florida and along the Gulf Coast will be in the area of human services."

Jeri Bush agrees, urging would-be volunteers to help in their own communities and in hard-hit communities along the coast.

"This is a devastating economic impact for coastal communities, so you can do simple things as a canned food drive to help support those families who are now out of work, you can donate goods and services to agencies like Goodwill who will hand out vouchers for families who are facing this crisis," she said.

Linley also suggests supporting Coast Watch and wildlife relief efforts. Sue Damon, a bird-lover in Wakulla County, started a Facebook page called Help Prepare for Florida Oil Spill in Panhandle that at first drew a new friend every 56 seconds. It now has more than 14,000 followers.

"They want to figure out ways they can help," Damon said. "And they're sending me the ideas that they see, like the hair "

The hair. Beauty salons are collecting hair for the booms to soak up the approaching oil. As to wildlife, those organizations are thinking strategically, too. For instance, the Florida Wild Mammal Association hasn't received any oiled animals yet, but it's holding a work party in Crawfordville Saturday to build cages and ready its facility.

"We are going to be living with the long-term effects of the chemicals and these hurt animals for years and years to come," said Damon. "So even if you want to donate to any wildlife organization that might not be directly helping in the oil spill, indirectly they will benefit, because there will be so many animals in the future."

Would-be volunteers with special skills, such as administration and technology, will be needed at call centers and other health and human service agencies. And of course, there's always fundraising, says Bush.

"[We can] always can use money, because that's the fastest way to get help out to people."

For now, adds Linley, volunteers can best help by staying informed - and by supporting their fellow Floridians.

"As we've already seen in the Panhandle counties in particular, the local economy has been impacted merely by the news - and by the anticipation of oil," Linley said. "And so if you go to the beach, you might find the most normal, pristine beach that normally is very full. So we want to encourage volunteers to go out and be tourists."

The oil disaster is expected to cost Florida's fragile economy $2.2 billion and 39,000 jobs, mostly in the tourism and seafood industries.

Sites for volunteers:
Volunteer Florida posts volunteer opportunities, contact information and status updates at www.volunteerfloridadisaster.org.
St. Francis Wildlife, at (850) 627-4151, needs help with day to day operations, such as caring for orphaned songbirds, grounds keeping, hospital and kennel cleaning, animal transport, database management, volunteer coordination and fundraising.
Gulf Specimen Marine Lab at www.gulfspecimen.org is implementing Operation Noah's Ark, a plan to clean the sea by installing "LivingDock" artificial habitats which are fiberglass structures that resemble reefs. Designed to grow barnacles, oysters, sea squirts and other fouling growth they filter and cleanse the water of excess bacteria that often builds up after an oil spill.