Gulf Coast Crisis: A Call for Action from the Philanthropic Community

A shrimp boat drags booms to gather oil in the waters of Chandeleur Sound, Louisiana, on May 5.

A shrimp boat drags booms to gather oil in the waters of Chandeleur Sound, Louisiana, on May 5. Photo Credit: AP

The foundation community – and the public at large – can do little to prevent the devastation of the Gulf of Mexico, its coastline and its communities as a result of BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout. Tremendous damage has been done, and more will be done over the next days, weeks, and months.  We stand in sympathy and outrage as human life, marine life and ecosystems are destroyed and jobs and economic security are in jeopardy. Already, communities along the Gulf have seen their ways of life and their livelihoods change.

The funding community can do little to prevent damage, but we can do a great deal to mitigate that damage – both on the socio-economic justice side and on the ecosystem front.

All response and prevention that can possibly be carried out – by local, state and national government agencies – needs and deserves support to ensure that resources are available and properly directed. And, amassing information is key to that process.

Funders should consider immediate support in these areas: securing baseline scientific information to assess the scope and degree of natural resource damages; securing socio-economic information to assist Gulf inhabitants in getting an equitable return to their pre-catastrophe state; and legislative pressure to reverse or modify decisions to prevent unwise drilling.

Natural Resources Baseline Assessment: Baseline data collection, monitoring and impact analyses are essential. There is the need to document information on affected areas vis à vis unaffected reference areas. Comparing, contrasting, and measuring the impact of the disaster on an array of natural resources – fish, oysters, marine life, mangroves and other habitats, and so on – is essential. Comparing Marshland A where there has been no oil damage with Marshland B, affected by oil, provides the basis for mitigation and compensation and determines strategies for restoration and recovery.

Determining and implementing a natural resources restoration plan is critical, and that begins now.  Restoration work – replanting damaged areas, reintroducing species, physical restoration of habitat, spawning beds, and reefs – is crucial.

Socio-Economic Baseline Assessment: Thousands of people who were dependent upon the natural resources available in the Gulf have lost or diminished their economic security and means of making a living. This includes those immediately dependent, such as fishermen and charter boat owners, as well as others who depend upon those resources in secondary ways, such as restaurant owners, seafood producers and resort managers. This is true throughout the Gulf, but the problems will be exacerbated in underserved communities and for those with weakened municipal governments. These people and communities need help getting through the civil litigation process and other processes that can and should compensate them for the damages they've experienced. Liability is apparent – but many will need help maneuvering through the process to prove their damages and receive the compensation they deserve. Collecting socio-economic baseline information – what livelihoods were like prior to the spill in relation to during and after the spill – is as important as the scientific baseline information outlined above for natural resources.

Immediate Pressure for Legislative Reform: In addition to addressing the damages experienced by the ecosystems themselves and the people who live there, fundamental legislative and regulatory reform is crucial in response to the crisis.  As terrible as the disaster is, it offers the opportunity to turn this catastrophe into something that offers brighter and more certain futures for the communities in the Gulf – namely, to make sure this kind of crisis doesn't happen again. Given the prevalence of offshore drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, there is nothing at this time to say that it won't happen, either again or more often. Gulf residents need to be protected by federal legislation to prevent reruns of this nightmare. In addition, legislative reform is essential for other regions so that similar catastrophes are not replicated there.  "Drill Baby Drill" has taken a hit with the public response to BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout, but that will change with the tide unless the focus against unwise drilling can be sustained over the long run and strong and significant pressure is put on Congress to reverse or modify decisions already made.  This window of opportunity will not be open long, and attention must be immediate. Many organizations within the NGO community are poised to apply this significant and sustained pressure, but they need the support of foundations and other funders to do so.  One of the most immediate – and most important – areas where imminent drilling must be stopped is in the fragile Arctic marine ecosystem, where a disaster of this magnitude could have equally dire consequences, and where no capacity to mount any serious response is currently in place.

We have sent out an appeal to the Tides community to donate to the Relief and Reconstruction Fund. Please consider taking part in this collaborative giving to the Gulf Coast and stay tuned for more from Tides on this crisis.

Vikki Spruill is president and CEO of Ocean Conservancy and sits on the Tides Board of Directors.