Editorial note: This is a firsthand look at First Response Team of America’s early days of working on the Gulf Coast to clean up the oil spill. It does not reflect the progress that has been made to date.
When Tad Agoglia, founder of First Response Team of America, a non-profit emergency response team that responds to disasters, arrived in Louisiana on May 30th, 41 days after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, he felt an overwhelming “patriotic sadness.” What has now become the worst oil spill in U.S. history continues to threaten our shores, with no end in sight.
Originally from New York, Agoglia lives on the road. He hasn’t been to his company headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn., for three years. That’s because he’s been busy responding to disasters across the country since he started the non-profit business in 2007.
“I had a crane company,” he reminisced, “but after [Hurricane] Katrina, I volunteered to open roads.”
As a contractor for hurricane cleanup, he wanted to find out what was needed on day one, he said. After Katrina, it wasn’t long before he saw other needs. Putting his personal finances and business on the line, he created the response team, which has been learning as they go.
“There’s only so much you can learn about disasters in school: demographics, terrain, size… You really need ’boots on the ground’ to learn about how to handle a disaster.”
He and his staff of seven have boots on the ground for about three weeks at most disaster sites, although for larger disasters, they might be on-site for two to three months. Every situation is different, although they all start the same way.
“The Weather Channel officials alerts us to pre-position equipment to arrive within five hours of a disaster,” he said of his protocol. Once there, he introduces himself to local officials and offers assistance.
“We use cranes and skid steers to open roads, light towers to assist in search and rescue and to keep looters out of common areas, cameras to go through rubble and homes, hovercraft to extract people, water pumps, custom self- loading dump trucks to haul away debris, satellite phones to facilitate communications and a 400 kw generator to keep things running.”
His fleet is designed to roll on tractor trailers, but the earthquake in Haiti lured him where his trailers couldn’t reach.
Accustomed to viewing devastation and dead bodies in his work and “mentally prepared” for disaster recovery, he said the oil spill affected him powerfully. “It was depressing at first. This toxic oil will destroy my homeland, the marshes… It will kill animals. I feel like I’m defending my country against an invader.”
Knowing his group is making a significant contribution toward protecting the shoreline, the marshes and the wildlife that live there, he admitted it’s a “surmounting task.”
While Agoglia’s team was acting defensively on the beach, other groups were working in the water to try to stop the leak or to halt its spread in the hopes of keeping it from reaching the shoreline. According to the Times Picayune, 21,000 cleanup and containment workers are being paid by British Petroleum and directed by the Coast Guard to corral oil on the water and scrape it off the beaches. The arrangement wherein the Coast Guard directs but does not participate in the action was codified in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. While some argue that it leads to confusion about who’s in charge, some agencies have worked out channels of authority and are busy with the work at hand.
Responding to The Spill
The Louisiana Army National Guard deployed Tiger Dams — heavy, thick water booms — along the east shore of the southwest pass in an effort to combat oil from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill washing ashore along the southern coast. First Response worked with the National Guard to build the dams in several areas of Southern Louisiana, starting with Grand Isle and Elmer’s Island, although Agoglia anticipated a move to the east to follow the direction the oil was moving.
Because the oil was constantly changing direction, skimmer boats and cleanup crews were forced to chase each new report of oil in a never-ending game of catch-up.
“Every day that that oil washes ashore, we lose a section of Louisiana,” Billy Nungesser, president of Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, told the Times Picayune, in June 2010 .
The urgency was felt by everyone. WAFB Channel 9, the CBS network affiliate located in Baton Rouge, La., reported that the Louisiana National Guard had about 70 guys working three eight-hour shifts every day of the week along an eight-mile stretch of Grand Isle.
The around-the-clock schedule is enabled by some of Agoglia’s equipment, such as a light tower donated by Terex. Agoglia typically shows up at a disaster scene with three Peterbilt tractor trailers with about $ 1.6 million dollars worth of gear to deal with disasters. The equipment needed for emergency situations: a high-speed crane, a generator powerful enough to run a hospital; grapple trucks with hydraulic cranes; severe-duty Cat loaders; hovercraft for water rescues; satellite phones and laptops; GMRS shortwave radios and GPS coordinators; and assorted tools including chain saws, torches and rigging devices.
For a disaster of this magnitude, Agoglia needed even more. A fourth tractor trailer hauled rubber track skid steers donated by Terex and Cat; a 2,000 gal/min water pump that attaches to the skid steers so they can be driven into the ocean to pump water into the Tiger Dams; light towers for 24 hour/day operation; a rubber track dump truck and trailer from Terex, which is unique because it goes into the water and the marshes; and a pump donated by Godwin, a New Jersey pump company.
The non-profit regularly gets support from Cat, Terex, the Pete Store and private donation, but the outpouring of assistance for this job overwhelmed Agoglia. Everything was donated, he marveled, except for a couple items on temporary loan.
“Terex reached out to me with an offer of help,” he said. “No strings attached, no publicity required. It’s all brand new equipment — five pieces worth about $100,000 each.”
As of mid-June, Agoglia said they had constructed approximately 3 mi. of dams along Grand Isle’s coast. The three layers of big water-filled tubes are the first line of defense the National Guard has put down to keep the oil from reaching the shore. The soldiers also set up a sand berm as the second line of defense.
Dam the Spill
Manufactured by U.S. Flood Control, Tiger Dams serve a primary function of acting as a barrier between the ocean and the land, holding back the oil to prevent it washing up on shore, where it will contaminate wildlife and property. Essentially “enormous tubes used as walls,” Agoglia explained, “the dams are lined up against the coast line, anchored four feet deep to hold them in place and filled with ocean water to hold back the oil, leaving about 20 feet of beach exposed to allow room for the cleanup work.
Tiger Dams were chosen by experts at the National Guard, Army and British Petroleum, with clearance from the Environmental Protection Agency, to protect the Louisiana coastline, its marshes and its wildlife from the harmful effects of the oil due, in part, to their environmentally friendly design. Made from American fabric and delivered directly from a warehouse in Kenner, La., they can be easily removed without leaving any footprint.
According to Paul Vickers, president of U.S. Flood Control, BP in Houma, La., ordered $10 million worth of his product.
“They need about 400 miles [of it] to stop the oil flow,” he estimated, adding that the Canadian government sent about 30 miles of the material they weren’t using, just to help out. Three dams are equivalent to putting 500 sandbags up in 90 seconds, Vickers claimed.
“It’s pretty fast,” a guardsman told WAFB. “You just roll them out, connect them and pump them full of water.”
It’s almost that simple. The dams fill quickly and easily through a fill valve that hooks up to fire hydrant in urban disasters. Along the coast, they’re using water from the Gulf of Mexico that has passed through a safety screen in order to avoid harming fish or crustaceans that could otherwise be sucked into the pump.
These 50-ft. by 19-in. (15.2 m by 48 cm) cylindrical tubes can be stacked in a pyramid up to 32 ft. (9.7 m) high and interconnected to form a barrier along the shoreline in a straight line or zig-zagged in any shape to avoid obstacles or to go around sensitive wetlands, beaches and barrier islands in order not to interfere with precious wildlife or fragile ecosystems. The top tube on the pyramid is a special containment unit that is initially pumped with water, but can be emptied in less than five minutes and pumped full of oil or muddy debris that washes up against the dam.
There is widespread confidence that the dams will keep the oil from intruding. Vickers said it’s a simple mathematic calculation: water comes up against water.
“It’s stronger using a 4-ft. [dam] with a 3-ft. helix earthen anchor to withstand a lot of pressure.”
Augers dig into the beach so anchors can be dropped. Straps are tied to the anchors to keep the dams from shifting in the current or any weather event. The key, Vickers said, is that the product “must stay out there through fall and withstand storm surges, hurricanes, etc.”
Facing a High Hurdle
The Tiger Dams are just for beach and marsh protection, Vickers acknowledged. Deano Bonano, Jefferson Parish’s emergency management director, said the current issue is not the beaches; it’s the islands behind them. “They die when oil gets on them, and they haven’t gotten cleaned yet,” he told the Times Picayune.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and officials in Plaquemines and Jefferson parishes urged rapid deployment of suction equipment that would allow workers to clean oil off sensitive bird rookeries and other marsh islands, but as of mid-June, only one suction device had been deployed in the areas behind Grand Isle.
Meanwhile, the oil continues to gush from the leak, making the situation more dire and the cleanup operation more difficult.
“Three weeks ago the water was clear,” Agoglia recalled. “Last week, the waves were red — full of oil.” That makes his job more hazardous. “We’re covered in oil when we’re moving pumps. It’s slippery, so it’s hard to work.”
His crew does wear special suits for protection, but those are cumbersome, bulky and difficult to work in. Still, it’s better than the alternative, with reports of many Gulf Coast cleanup workers getting sick from prolonged exposure to the oil.
“We wear a lot of protective gear so we don’t get sick,” he said.
They may be healthy, but Agoglia said many on his team are sick at heart. “It’s a difficult environment, an emotional environment.” Featured as one of CNN’s Top 10 Heroes and recipient of the Jefferson Award, which is the highest honor for “Greatest Public Service by an Individual 35 or Younger,” Agoglia humbly stated, “Our sole dedication is to respond to the greatest need. We live and breathe this stuff. Our work here will be our top priority until this disaster is contained. America deserves this kind of response.
In the two months that the team had boots on the ground in Louisiana, it took on many challenges. Cleaning oil off the beaches on the Barrier Islands was one of the most difficult, and it presented hindrances before it even started. The crew first had to figure out how to get equipment out there. With no roads to make use of, the only option was to find a barge large enough to hold all the equipment while still being capable of moving in shallow water. In addition, the barge had to have a crane on-board that could lift the equipment onto the beaches.
Severe weather was the second interference to disturb the team’s efforts to move the equipment out and several times the team had to abandon ship and run for shelter from storms. Eventually, the team was able to land on the islands and start digging the oil out from under the top layers of sand and dispose of it.
The team was given a place to stay on a jack-up barge parked close to the islands while they removed oil from the beaches on Grand Isle and Bay Chaland.
First Response Team of America left Delta Marina in Empire, La., on July 26 to start preparations for the 2010 hurricane season, which is predicted to be a bad one and which Agoglia fears will provide the perfect vehicle for the oil to spread inland via high tides, winds and rain. For more details of First Response Team’s work on the Gulf Coast and in other areas in need, visit www.firstresponseteam.org. CEG
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