Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Beach Wildlife Expert Helps With Rescue in the Gulf


Kathryn Owens decided to pursue a career in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. After seeing so much damage to birds, fish and marine life, "I just knew I wanted to help."

So it seems only natural that Owens was one of the first wildlife experts from Hampton Roads to do battle with the massive ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Owens, a deputy manager at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia Beach, just returned from a two-week stint in Louisiana, where she helped to organize rescues of oil-covered birds and waterfowl.

The experience left her emotionally and physically drained. But she cannot wait to go back.

"It's a nightmare scenario," Owens said Monday, "but it's exactly where I needed to be and where I wanted to be."

Her boss, refuge manager Jared Brandwein, reported to the Gulf last week just as Owens was returning. Refuge biologist John Gallegos got word Monday that he, too, will go to Louisiana, where he will lead a rescue team in search of oily birds trapped at sea, in marshes and on beaches.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has more than 495 employees fighting the BP oil spill, according to agency statistics. Most go for two weeks at a time and are not supposed to work more than 16 hours per day - "but that doesn't always happen," Owens said with a chuckle.

Her days typically began at 6 a.m. and ended "about 10 or 11 at night," when she returned to her hotel room, exhausted.

Owens was assigned to the Incident Command Center, located at BP offices in Houma, La. She thought she would be scrubbing oil off pelicans and terns.

But lacking enough personnel, responders asked Owens to coordinate rescue efforts instead - putting crews together with boats, equipment, fuel and resources. She was on the phone almost continuously for 14 straight days.

"I would have cleaned toilets if they had asked me," she said. "There are so many people working so hard down there. You just roll up your sleeves and dig in. It's the only thing we can do."

According to government statistics updated Monday, 724 birds have been collected alive, the vast majority in Louisiana. Another 957 have died. Sea turtles also are bearing a big brunt, with 387 reported dead and another 117 undergoing rehabilitation.

Owens, a wildlife ecologist by training, said one of her worst days in the Gulf was seeing images on TV of the first birds pulled from the water with oil caked to all parts of their bodies.

"There was just silence in the command center," she recalled. "Some people had to leave the room, they were so emotional."

Owens could feel an air of depression among workers and locals, "in part because it's just so senseless. And we have no idea how comprehensive this is. This'll take decades to deal with."

As for herself, Owens said, "I was on the verge of tears every day, and still am."

Working at BP offices and side by side with BP employees was "definitely strange," she said. Because so many Louisiana residents are so mad over the spill, especially at BP, Owens said government staffers were told not to wear their federal credentials away from the command center - and definitely not to wear anything with BP printed on it.

"It's a security issue," she said.

Still, Owens said, most locals support government efforts and are friendly to visiting workers like herself: "They realize we're heart broken too."

Owens said Gulf seafood remains available - she recalled one delicious plate of crawfish etouffee at a restaurant in Houma, "my only night out" - despite ever-expanding closure areas because of pollution.

Back in Virginia, Owens is working with the Coast Guard, state scientists and other authorities to cope with any spilled oil in the Gulf that might push up the Atlantic coast, as some forecasters predict.

Back Bay staffers were asked to identify critical habitats along the Virginia coast, including much of the wildlife refuge, where protections should be readied just in case.

"At least we have time to plan," Owens said. "The Gulf didn't have that luxury."


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