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Despite Oil Spill Unknowns:
It’s ‘up to us to respond,’ say university researchers

Apr 14, 2011

The full effects of the BP oil spill on the Gulf Coast’s health, environment and economy may not be known for quite some time, but scientists at the University of South Alabama are addressing lingering questions through their research.

At a downtown Mobile, Alabama hotel on April 13, a panel of USA experts discussed their projects and some of their findings. The forum was co-sponsored by the university and the newly formed Coastal Alabama Leadership Council. You can view a recording of the event here, or download a list of the USA panelists and other university experts on the Gulf here.

“We were on the front lines and continue to be on the front lines,” said Russ Lea, the university’s vice president for research.

Since the spill, more than 20 USA researchers have been at work on more than $2.6 million in grants focused on post-oil spill impacts. Among the USA researchers’ efforts: training for peer-to-peer counseling; air testingof volatile organic compounds; the study of fishery habitats; and an assessment of the spill’s impact on Coastal Alabama property values.

For those working in the natural sciences, no data sent up alarms about immediate dangers to humans. Those studying social impacts, however, have a different story to tell.

Steven Picou, a professor of sociology who studied for more than two decades the impact of the Exxon Valdez spill, noted the difference between natural and man-made disasters, including hurricanes. After hurricanes, said Picou, an “all clear” is given to come back, repair and rebuild. But there is no “all clear” after an oil spill, and the mental health impacts can come in waves for years.

With the BP spill, there was frustration with the response, the concern over the dispersants, and agony surrounding the claims
process. Next, Picou said, will come the trauma of extended litigation. After the Exxon spill, the legal fights dragged on for 20 years.

Dr. Ron Franks, a professor of psychiatry and vice president for health sciences, said a typical grieving process can take two years, with initial trauma lasting about six months. But Franks predicts that, because of the lack of satisfying resolutions to questions about long-term impacts and because of the likelihood of prolonged media coverage of court battles, it will be at least four years for people to get beyond the mental health vulnerabilities exposed by the spill.

“It will be up to us to respond to the challenge,” Franks said.

A significant step in that response is the formation of the Coastal Alabama Leadership Council, which co-presented the April 13 forum. The Leadership Council, a non-profit coalition of regional leaders, is the direct outgrowth of the Coastal Recovery Commission of Alabama created by executive order of then Gov. Bob Riley. The Commission’s 2010 report, “A Roadmap to Resilience,” made one of its key recommendations the formation of a permanent group to carry forward “Roadmap” proposals. The new Council is that group.

Read more about the Coastal Recovery Commission in the overview column to the immediate right. And get caught up on the Commission’s process and the transition to the Coastal Alabama Leadership Council by watching the videos on the far right and by reading posts preceding this one.

For the Mobile Press-Register’s coverage of the April 14 forum, go here.

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  • Headline

    A once-in-a generation opportunity is upon us. A transformational moment in Alabama history.

    That’s how Gov. Bob Riley described hopes for the Coastal Recovery Commission (CRC) of Alabama, created by his executive order on September 27, 2010.

    The CRC’s mission: To shape, in the wake of BP’s Deep Water Horizon oil spill, “a roadmap to resilience” for South Alabama.

    “We must do everything we can to restore what’s been lost because of this disaster,” said Gov. Riley. “But we should also use this moment to strengthen the resilience of our state and coastal communities. The commission will recommend ways that improve our ability to respond to future challenges and examine strategies that will mean far less suffering the next time a catastrophe threatens us.”

    The CRC’s work is funded entirely with BP money already contributed to the state. No tax dollars will be used. What’s more, Gov. Riley took pains to insulate the Commission as much as possible from politics as usual. Since he leaves office in January, he’s acutely aware that the recommendations of the Commission will be in another governor’s hands. So he’s reached out to the political camps of both men vying to replace him, inviting them to appoint their own representatives to the Commission to participate in shaping a report that should inspire the new governor no matter who wins in the November elections.

    What’s more, Gov. Riley is asking local elected officials to give the Commission a little room to work. “We’ll bring politicians in,” said the governor. “But this will be a citizen-led – not a politician-led – effort. If we do that, I promise you it will be successful.”

    The CRC is made up of citizen leaders with broad ranges of experience in civic life in Alabama’s coastal region. It’s headed by Mobile Press-Register publisher Ricky Mathews, who brings to this effort the experience of a similar commission in the post-Hurricane Katrina environment of coastal Mississippi. For a complete list of CRC members, go here.

    “What we learned after Katrina on the Mississippi Coast,” said Mathews, “is that a crisis of even enormous proportions provides opportunities to re-imagine a whole region.

    “If we do our work on this commission right,” Mathews said, “we can position South Alabama for not only bouncing back more effectively from future catastrophes like oil spills and hurricanes but also for providing greater security and more opportunity for all of our citizens, even when there are no emergencies. That’s the essence of resiliency.”

    Forging consensus on what the oil spill’s impacts were and how to make the coast safer for citizens and visitors and more secure for long-term investment is tough enough. Implementing the Commission’s recommendations next year and in the years after will be harder – if the Commission is not able to begin building coalitions of support during this process. “If we’re to make the most of this opportunity,” said Mathews, “we have to begin thinking bigger and broader than we ever have.

    “Oil spills and hurricanes don’t just threaten isolated spots on a map,” said Mathews. “Their effects reverberate through an entire state, through a region even. So our chances for coping with future threats depend upon us building a regional vision, an awareness of how we’re connected with one another and how we can work with one another to do more than any of us as individual citizens or individual communities ever imagined.”

    This is a project on a fast track. At some point – no one knows exactly when – there is the potential for billions of dollars to flow to the coastal states from BP and from other energy-related sources. To assure that Alabama is positioned to make the most of this potential investment, “we need a plan,” said Gov. Riley. And it has to come quickly.

    So the Commission is committed to delivering its report by Dec. 15, initially as a downloadable pdf from this website. Printed books will be available soon thereafter.

    The Commission is organizing its work under three broad topics, each connected with the other and each representing a key component of regional adaptability and sustainability:

    A Healthy Environment
    A Healthy Society
    A Healthy Economy

    Commission members are assigned to each of the topics and will break the broader categories into sub-committees as they see fit. We’ll report on the activities of those committees and sub-committees on this website regularly.

    This is a very public process. Participation of regional experts, elected and appointed officials from all the towns and counties affected by the oil spill, regional business folks, and residents will have plenty of opportunities to review CRC work in progress and contribute their ideas and comments. They’ll be able to do that in person at community meetings, by mail or phone, and online via this website.

    Here’s how to make the best use of this site:



    If you want to know who’s on the Commission and who’s staffing it, click on the WHO tab in the toolbar above.

    If you want to understand the CRC’s mission, get answers to frequently asked questions, and see background data committees are gathering, click on the WHAT & WHY tab.

    If you want to know the schedule of public events and locations for meetings, click on the WHEN & WHERE tab.

    If you want to contact us directly, you’ll find information under CONTACT US, and at the bottom of each news post in the column to the left, is space for comments and questions.

    If you want to read or see what others are saying about the CRC effort, we’ll post links and documens under IN THE NEWS.





    This is going to move fast. So keep in touch. We need your participation.







  • PROCESS VIDEOS
    To see how the CRC based its work on the experiences of those most affected by the oil spill, click this video below:
    Click this video to watch our mid-course update:
    Click this video to explore the CRC's goals and principles:
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