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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes
 SAN LUIS NWRC:  Refuge Complex Staff Assist with Deepwater-Horizon Oil Spill Recovery Operations
Region 8, September 29, 2010
San Luis NWR Complex staff members (from left)) Shawn Murphy, Matt Gibson, Peter Kelly, Brandon Jordan each served two-week details during summer 2010 with the oil spill in the Gulf.  (USFWS photo/Jack Sparks)
San Luis NWR Complex staff members (from left)) Shawn Murphy, Matt Gibson, Peter Kelly, Brandon Jordan each served two-week details during summer 2010 with the oil spill in the Gulf.  (USFWS photo/Jack Sparks) - Photo Credit: n/a

by Madeline Yancey, San Luis NWRC
Americans across the nation spent the summer watching as more than 200 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded in flames on April 20.  They watched with a gamut of emotions from anger to frustration, but also with a sense of pride as they saw thousands of their fellow citizens from countless organizations and agencies, from all over the country respond to the crisis and offer themselves in service.

Indeed, there is a local connection for the citizens of the small agricultural community of Los Banos, California; and for the staff of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex located there.  Peter Kelly and Shawn Murphy are just two of five San Luis NWRC staff members who each served two-week deployments to the Gulf from late May through late July.

Peter Kelly is the Fire Management Officer (FMO) for the refuge complex and has served in Los Banos for nearly seven years.  He has served with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 12 years.  Shawn Murphy is the refuge’s Assistant FMO and has served with the FWS for 11 years, all in Los Banos.

As the environmental crisis developed in the Gulf, the call went out from FMOs throughout the Fish and Wildlife Service for volunteers to assist with the operations and organization of scores of people converging to rescue the region’s threatened wildlife resources.

Kelly, who is qualified as an Incident Commander (IC) Type 3 and Division/Group Supervisor, actually volunteered for two deployments.  His first two weeks were served in Mobile, Alabama, where he assisted with wildlife reconnaissance and recovery efforts.  As an IC Type 3 Supervisor, Kelly was in charge of establishing the Incident Command System through which a framework of operations was developed.  He selected the personnel to fill required positions and worked directly with other Fish and Wildlife Service employees, in addition to people from numerous other groups and agencies including the National Park Service, BP, the U.S. Coast Guard, and many private contractors.

Kelly’s second two weeks were spent in Houma, Louisiana, where his time was spent mostly with planning operations, since the organizational framework there had already been established when he arrived.  Kelly explained that the “Incident Command System” is a standardized plan used by emergency management personnel to create a framework that can be used to manage any emergency incident, whether it is a motor vehicle accident, a wildfire, or a massive oil spill.

The biggest challenge in an incident like the Gulf oil spill, Kelly said, “is that people didn’t see the value in the Incident Command System until it was in place.  People were floundering and reluctant...reluctant to change from a way of doing things that, for them, was familiar.”

Despite that challenge, Kelly said he feels his most significant contribution to the efforts on behalf of the wildlife resources during the oil spill was that Incident Command Framework he helped establish in Mobile; and that continued to be used as the sector expanded after his departure.  Kelly was commended for his service as “Acting Deputy Branch Director for Oiled Wildlife Reconnaissance and Recovery,” during his time in Mobile.

Kelly said he will remember the many passionate people he met within the Fish and Wildlife Service who were trying to do what they felt was right for the resource.  Kelly was also impressed, he said, “by the unique culture and habitat of the Southeast.”  He loved the “fish camps.”  “They were hunting shacks on pilings,” from which folks cast their nets to catch shrimp.  He’d like to have one of those, he said.

Shawn Murphy served as Area Coordinator responsible for reconnaissance and recovery for oiled wildlife; first out of the Carmin Dale Marina, and then from the BP Incident Command Post, in Grand Isle, Louisiana.

Murphy managed the personnel who performed the wildlife reconnaissance and recovery tasks, and supervised two task-force leaders, and one boat handler.  He was also responsible for the marina, 16 boats, vehicles, facilities, and equipment.

Like Kelly, Murphy also worked with people from many other agencies including BP, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fish, U.S. Forest Service, National Guard, and Air Quality Control; as well as USFWS Public Information Officers and assorted media that came through three times a week.  “We had a.m. briefings and our operations were filmed by the National Conservation Training Center,” Murphy said.  “While our focus was on finding and recovery of injured wildlife, there were briefings, conference calls, telephone calls, and reporting on tasks completed.”

Murphy noted that during his tenure in the Gulf the well was capped – the flow stopped, “somewhere around day 98...but the young in the (bird) rookeries were just starting to fly.  They would get out across the booms and couldn’t get back,” he said.

Murphy said that his ability to maintain a high rate of professional productivity for the resource, he feels, was a significant contribution to efforts in the Gulf.  The biggest challenge, he said, was working with so many different personalities, each passionate about the resource, and each with their own ideas about the best way to get the job done.  He said, “It was not easy to work together, but we kept a difficult operation going,” and that accomplishment will follow him to his next challenge.  “A lot of people covered a lot of territory and cared for and released a lot of wildlife,” he said.

Kelly and Murphy were just two of five staff members from the San Luis NWRC who volunteered their time and service to the oil spill.  Dennis Woolington, Supervisory Wildlife Biologist; Brandon Jordan, Maintenance Worker; and Matt Gibson, Refuge Firefighter; also each served for two weeks on behalf of the Nation’s wildlife resources in the Gulf of Mexico.

Woolington, Gibson, and Jordan assisted with reconnaissance and operations across hundreds of square miles of the Gulf.  Woolington patrolled the Barataria Bay out of Myrtle Grove, Louisiana on the west side of the Mississippi River.  Jordan worked the California Bay and other areas out of Venice; and Gibson monitored the Caminada Bay out of Grand Isle.

Each man spent 10- to 12-hours a day, on a boat as part of a crew consisting of a captain, a deckhand, and one or two biologists, or other personnel.  Each day they patrolled their respective areas, travelling as much as 150 miles, searching for oiled or dead wildlife, performing wildlife rescue and retrieval, searching for oil slicks, and monitoring the condition of portions of hundreds of miles of boom put in place to either absorb surface oil, or to physically keep it from washing ashore.  Oiled wildlife was captured, when possible, and turned over to personnel responsible for transporting it to wildlife rehabilitation centers.  Dead wildlife was collected and bagged, then sent on for examination and data collection.

Whether an oiled bird, a damaged boom, or an oil slick, GPS coordinates were recorded for everything, then reported to a field station or command center where that information became part of a daily update, used the following morning by supervisors to direct work crews to areas where wildlife needed rescue, booms needed attention, or oil needed to be removed from a shoreline.

In addition to these duties, Jordan was part of an Immediate Response Group that was on-call until 9 o’clock at night, responding to reports of the presence and location of dead or oiled wildlife.

To date, personnel from the San Luis NWRC have contributed a combined total of 84 staff-days to the effort.

Contact Info: Jack Sparks, 209-826-3508, jack_sparks@fws.gov