But while images of cleaning up oil-drenched wildlife are compelling, hands-on volunteer opportunities in the Gulf Coast are not as straightforward as you might hope.
Here’s what you need to know to help out in the Gulf Coast region…
Each state has its own resource where potential volunteers can register their information. Registration does not mean you’re guaranteed a volunteer position. Participants will be contacted only on an as-needed basis and local candidates will be considered first. If you do reach out to an organization to offer help, please make sure it’s connected with its state service commission.
- United We Serve/National: www.serve.gov/oilspill.asp
- Mississippi: www.volunteermississippi.org
- Alabama: www.servealabama.gov
- Florida: www.volunteerflorida.org
- Louisiana: www.volunteerlouisiana.gov
The response from well-meaning individuals has been overwhelming for many smaller organizations. Within 10 days of realizing the impending arrival of oil, Alabama environmental group, Mobile Baykeeper, received more than 7,000 calls and an estimated 4,000 registered volunteers.
Don’t plan a trip to the Gulf Coast solely to volunteer. Casi Callaway, Mobile Baykeeper’s executive director, recently received a phone call from seven out-of-state travelers who had already booked plane tickets and were now looking for volunteer work. Although she was successful in procuring positions for them, she now asks that travelers register and give advance notice.
Even if you do reach someone who is willing to help you find a position, remember that it’s not likely to involve cleaning off wildlife. However, locals and out-of-towners have been showing up in affected areas, like Florida’s Escambia and Walton counties, to clean tar balls from the beaches.
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Officially, BP only allows individuals they have hired and trained to be a qualified responder. The volunteer positions that local non-profit organizations can offer tend to be administrative, like data entry and research.
While local officials appreciate that visitors want to come and help, there is logic behind the limitations. Louisiana Service Commission Executive Director, Janet Pace, explains, she does not want to “put a good-hearted, well-meaning volunteers in harm’s way,” without a better understanding of the health hazards associated with the oil. Experts have noted that limited contact with tar balls is not hazardous to individuals, however, the effects of the powerful chemical dispersants BP is using is less clear.
Pace labels the Deepwater Horizon spill as an “evolving disaster,” so while the commission does not need volunteers at this point, they expect to have a full calendar of events in the next couple of weeks.
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OTHER WAYS TO HELP
Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA) Interactive Map allows individuals to follow the oil’s path, and where responders are taking action.
Coastline monitoring is a very accessible way for people to get actively involved in the process. Individuals can call BP at 866-448-5816 if they see oil on shore. Report injured or oiled wildlife to BP’s Wildlife Distress Hotline at 866-557-1401.
In Florida, specifically, report oiled shoreline to the State Warning Point: 1-877-2-SAVE-FL (1-877-272-8335) or #DEP from a cell phone. For a comprehensive overview, Florida has downloadable guides for reporting spills at www.volunteerfloridadisaster.org, which outlines what to look for when reporting impacts to Florida’s shoreline.
The Audubon Society, which also been bombarded with request to help, has put a call out for Gulf Coast birders to provide important information. Audubon is working with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology to recruit citizens to record their findings to help prioritize and inform conservation efforts. Birders are being asked to post their observations at www.ebird.org.
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The Gulf Response Involvement Team organized a three-week beach sweep, and is now working on proposals for longer-term projects, such as replacing marsh grasses. Once volunteers are needed, people who have experience and training germane to the project will logically be the most helpful.
Tri-State Bird Research & Rescue is offering an alternative way to get involved with helping wildlife with its Adopt A Pelican Program, in honor of the brown pelican, Louisiana’s state bird. Your adoption will include: a certificate of adoption, a photo of your bird, a plush stuffed pelican that makes bird calls, and additional information.
The Gulf Islands National Seashore Visitor Information Center is accepting volunteers who can make a three-hour commitment once a week for three months. Volunteers work in four different locations, including three beaches: Johnson Beach, Langdon Beach, and Opal Beach, and around the piers in the Fort Pickens area. Prospective volunteers attend a training session with the park service to learn how to communicate with visitors.
The Visitor Center’s key message to visitors is safety: how to stay safe out on the beaches, and how to handle oil or tar ball contact. Volunteers will also remain up to date on park and oil spill information, so that they can share this knowledge with visitors. Interested individuals can register through volunteerflorida.org and enter Escambia County. Gulf Islands NS will make initial contact with list members to let them know when the next training session is. And be sure to check out the Perdido Key Beach Cam.
Get the latest news in our Natural Disasters section.
REMEMBERING THE HUMAN ELEMENT
Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans has opened five sites. The Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana needs volunteers to sort food packages, and sign up for daily food distribution for community members. Second Harvest serves both members of the community that have been affected by the spill, and those that have not.
Learn about more New Orleans-based volunteer projects:
- Celebrity Charity Projects: Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Project
- Notes from New Orleans: Battling Fraud on the Long Road Home
- Volunteering New Orleans: Wading Through Wetlands With Common Ground Relief
If hands-on opportunities in the Gulf Coast do arise, registered volunteers who have specialized skills will likely be at the top of the contact list. In the meantime, look toward your own community to develop that training. Check out volunteer matching resources like Idealist.org, VolunteerMatch.com, Volunteer.united-e-way.org, and www.SweatMonkey.org.
Gail Straight, curator at Wildlife, Inc, a non-profit that specializes in rehabilitating sick or injured animals to return to the wild, warns of potential volunteer scams. She’s alerting individuals never to pay for so-called “spill training” of any kind—scammers will charge a fee for non-existent training on how to clean wildlife. Also, be aware of solicitations for donations to purchase items such as liquid soap, towels and money; BP is picking up that tab.
GET OUT THERE AND TRAVEL!
Tourism has been hugely affected in the Gulf Coast, even around beaches that have been unaffected by the oil spill. As a result, many properties are relaxing or waiving their cancellation policies if the beach is affected by oil.
The National Healthy Beach Campaign‘s site keeps a detailed and updated list of beaches in the areas affected by the Gulf Spill, specifically. Make sure to contact your beaches ahead of time if you have any questions or uncertainty about safety.
Orbitz is offering a “clean beach guarantee” which states if you book at a participating hotel for travel between June 14 and July 31, 2010, you will be eligible for a full refund on any unused hotel nights if a government agency closes a beach within 20 miles of the property or declares it dangerous. Orbitz will notify you if there is a beach closure or health advisory near your hotel, so you can decide if you would like to request a refund. Currently there are 120 hotels participating in Florida.
For more ideas, check out our Voluntourism & Volunteer Vacations section.
For information on Florida deals and promotions, visit www.visitflorida.com. Current offers include:
Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club’s Clean Beach Guarantee offers guests a 100 percent refund on room and taxes if the resort’s beach is “directly impacted” by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill during their vacation. As part of its summer value promotion, rooms start from $119 per night and includes free parking, free Beach Klub 4 Kids for children 5-12, and no resort fees.
Sandestin Resort is offering a free night if you book by June 30, with its Summer Fun Guarantee including a long list of free amenities such as jet-ski rentals, sailing, paddle boarding, kids’ activities, ropes course, and nighttime entertainment. The resort has also implemented a new 24-hour cancellation policy.
Learn more about travel in the American South.
A region-wide promotion is currently taking place in Mississippi’s Gulf Coast: Book a two-night stay on the Gulf Coast and get a free $75 Kangaroo Express gas card. Participants must call 1-888-388-1006 to reserve by July 15. Mississippi is also offering a contest to win one of four getaway packages including hotel accommodations, meals, amenities, a $500 Prime Outlets shopping spree and more. For more travel information on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, visit www.gulfcoast.org.
Many of Alabama’s rental property companies are offering deals and promotions for prospective visitors. For example, at ResortQuest Vacation Rentals, resort and rental rates have dropped 33 percent through July 15, starting from $125 a night. Most summer packages also include the “Passport to Fun,” which includes free access to a waterpark and go-kart track.
Spectrum Resorts at The Beach Club, Gulf Shores has an offer that includes: no deposits required, pay when you stay, 24-hour cancellation with no penalty, and 100 percent refund if the oil spill adversely affects your stay. As a thank you for supporting Gulf tourism, guests will also get a commemorative T-shirt designed by a local artist. For more information on Alabama’s Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, visit www.gulfshores.com.
By Jessica Kate Soberman and Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com.
Related links on PeterGreenberg.com:
- Gulf Coast Oil Report: Local Businesses Collapsing, Ecosystem Toxic
- Interview with Jean-Michel Cousteau about the Gulf Oil Spill
- Eco-Travel section
- Voluntourism & Volunteer Vacations section
- BP Oil Hits Florida Beaches, Tourism Suffers
- BP Offers Cash for Oil Spill States’ Tourism Marketing
- BP Asked to Pay for Ads to Aid Oil Spill States
- Oil Spill Disaster Strikes Louisiana Coast, Mississippi Delta: Florida Next