“Petit Bois Island was the first to see large amounts of tar balls. They were fresh, more oily than rubbery,” Jennifer Raabe explains. Beyond the daunting ecological implications, Jennifer fears an entire way of life is at risk. “The seafood industry – so many people’s livelihoods are at stake. The beach – it’s what I’ve known my whole life. And now it’s closed”
“We haven’t seen much oil yet but I know once it arrives it’ll impact us for years to come.” says the 24-year old SCA intern, who is conducting bird surveys at Gulf Islands National Seashore along the Mississippi-Alabama border. As a Gulf native who earned her biology degree from the University of Southern Mississippi, she’s watching this unfolding drama literally hit home.
Jennifer continues to monitor ospreys and other nesting birds each day. Since the spill, however, she’s undergone hours of hazardous materials training. She now starts each morning by meeting with a BP representative to compare notes before beginning her surveys. She uses a hotline to alert responders of affected wildlife – “we saw two oiled Laughing Gulls today” – but adds, "so far, Gulf Islands largely has been spared the fate of other oil-soaked wetlands."
“Fortunately, we haven’t seen much wildlife impact yet,” she says. “I found a [dead] juvenile gannet floating in the water, a dead sea turtle. But there was no sign of oil on them.” Jennifer says speculation is growing that widely used oil dispersants may be taking their toll. Still, she says she remains hopeful.
“There’s a great effort going on here, with the community pitching in to put up booms and clean the beaches,” Jennifer states. “The Gulf Coast community is strong and we will pull through this, just like we did with Katrina.”
In nearby Alabama, SCA intern Elizabeth Lesley is working out of a multi-agency Incident Command Center. Until recently, the 24-year old South Carolinian had been monitoring endangered species at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. She requested, and was granted, a leave to aid the federal government’s Gulf response effort.
“I wanted to transfer as soon as I heard about the spill,” says Elizabeth. “I just wanted to make a difference for the people and the wildlife."
She was assigned to a wildlife recovery team patrolling an area, by boat and by foot, stretching from eastern Mississippi to Pensacola, Florida. The days are long – 12 hour shifts – and temperatures have hovered near 100 degrees.
“Personally, I’ve encountered about 30 birds,” she says, “half of them injured and half of them dead, though the fatalities didn’t seem oil-related. We use large nets to capture the live birds, transfer them into pet carriers and send them to rehab centers."
“I feel really good about the surviving birds because most were able to be set free after treatment. At the same, I feel kind of helpless as oil is still coming in to a lot of sensitive areas.”
As her hitch nears an end – responders are limited to two weeks in the oil affected region – and she prepares to return to central Texas, Elizabeth says her heart will remain in the stricken Gulf.
“The local people thank us every day for what we’re doing, but they’re worried. They’re frustrated. And I understand why the public complains about delays. We [agency responders] are frustrated, too. But everybody here is good people and here because they want to help.”
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