Katrina’s Environmental Catastrophe (That You Probably Never Heard Of)

Note: This piece is the last of four we’ve put together for the 10-year anniversary of Katrina. Paul and I reported to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Public Information Assist Team the summer of 2005. Our team was in the disaster zone from Aug. 28, the day before landfall, until Feb. 8. 

House in Chalmette, La., after the Murphy Oil spill. photo by Russ Tippetts, used with permission.

Damaged (ruined?) house in Chalmette, La., after the Murphy Oil spill. photo by Russ Tippets, used with permission.

It’s difficult to celebrate any kind of “anniversary” for the recovery phase of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath because, in some regards, it is ongoing. Much of what began not long after the response phase of massive search and rescue efforts after the storm went on behind the scenes.

The charge for some responders during recovery was to mitigate the environmental devastation left in the wake of the storm, which paralyzed critical ports, waterways, marine transportation-related industry and nationally vital oil and gas infrastructure throughout southeastern Louisiana. Katrina caused six major, four medium and 134 minor oil spills in the state. More than 7 1/2 million gallons of oil was discharged from storage tanks, refineries, pipelines and marine facilities across 130 miles of rivers, canals, bays and adjacent sensitive wetlands. However, many people don’t know this part of the Katrina story.

How'd we go from communicating search and rescue operations to oil and HAZMAT recovery in a matter of weeks? Easy. We worked for the Coast Guard. Left photo by Russ Tippetts, used with permission; right by Dan Taylor, used with permission. Full credit info at bottom of this piece.

How’d we go from communicating search and rescue operations to oil and hazardous materials cleanup in a matter of weeks? Easy. We worked for the Coast Guard. Left photo by Russ Tippets, used with permission; right by Dan Taylor, used with permission. Full credit info at bottom of this piece.

Story Fatigue and One of History’s Worst Environmental Disasters

I wouldn’t go so far as saying people stop caring about disasters. Maybe they get “story fatigue,” maybe they just move on to the next thing to care about or maybe there’s some kind of connection to an event, at first, and then it’s gone. We’ve all been there, especially in this age of “social media outrage.” (There should be a “swear jar” for that term, IMO) These reasons are probably why there are still many untold stories from the aftermath of Katrina, just as there are for some of the major headlines now, 10 years later. As the human element of dramatic rescues and people in peril started to dwindle, a few weeks after the storm made landfall, people outside the affected area seemed to turn to other things. The political aspects of the story, maybe? Or, rightfully so, the stories of rebuilding (focused primarily on New Orleans, but a story that was the same for much of southeast Louisiana and beyond).

At the tail end of Paul’s and my first deployment to Katrina, our team integrated with responders working the recovery. Our main job was communicating oil spill and hazardous waste cleanup facts. It should surprise you that, at the time, Hurricane Katrina was responsible for the 2nd worst oil spill incident in American history, behind the Exxon Valdez spill. Knocked down to #3 now, thanks to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The reason much of the recovery piece wasn’t reported? Oil spills and hazmat releases that didn’t immediately affect people trying to get their lives back together after Katrina were not “news” (outside of local media). The spill at the Murphy Oil facility in Meraux, La. – one of the six major spills – was different, though, because it DID affect a small town and its citizens’ ability to get back to normal. It wasn’t the biggest – three of the major spills were bigger, and accounted for the majority of all spilled oil. But, it was the baddest: it negatively affected more people directly than all the other spills combined.

What Happened at Murphy?

Spokesman: We used all the precautions that the industry standards use.

Reporter: So, what does that standard say to do, when a hurricane is coming, what does that standard say to do?

Spokesman: I can’t answer that. I don’t know. I don’t know that answer to that question.

That quote isn’t from a satire piece. It’s from a CNN interview with a Murphy spokesman, which aired during my deployment.

We’ve used the Murphy spill – and how part of it was handled – as a risk communications case study for 10 years. It was a situation in which people displaced by the storm just wanted to come home and start putting their lives back together, but who perceived that they couldn’t do it safely. Not only did residents of Chalmette, the town adjacent to the Murphy facility, have to deal with floodwaters damaging their homes, but also with a glut of oil that surged in with it. The Murphy tank farm leaked more than 800,000 gallons of oil, according to government estimates, when floodwaters from Katrina pushed a massive storage tank from its foundation, causing it to rupture. When those floodwaters became higher than the secondary containment (the berms around the tank farm), it spilled oily water into the neighborhood and impacted more than 1,500 homes.

The Murphy Oil tank farm and adjacent Chalmette, La., neighborhood now, via Google Earth view.

The Murphy Oil tank farm and adjacent Chalmette, La., neighborhood now, via Google Earth view.

The flooded Murphy Oil tank farm and Chalmette, Sep. 5, 2005. Louisiana DEQ photo, downloaded from NOAA's Incident News site.

The flooded Murphy Oil tank farm and Chalmette, Sep. 5, 2005. Louisiana DEQ photo, downloaded from NOAA’s Incident News site.

I was involved with what happened next, as the public information officer for the multi-agency oil spill and hazmat forward operating base, in Baton Rouge, responsible for environmental pollution cleanup in southeast Louisiana. Residents of Chalmette wanted to know if it was safe to come home; parish officials wanted to know what to tell their constituents and some residents perceived that they were getting the runaround from state and federal government officials.

Command and general staff meeting, ESF-10 Forward Operating Base Baton Rouge, Oct. 2005.

Command and general staff meeting, ESF-10 Forward Operating Base Baton Rouge, Oct. 2005.

A little background: the Coast Guard and EPA “split” responsibility for cleanup at the Murphy site (based on the National Response Plan). The Coast Guard was responsible for overseeing cleanup of free floating oil within the secondary containment (the berms around the tank farm) and the canals around the facility; the EPA was responsible for the neighborhood adjacent to the facility. Both agencies worked with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to make sure the job was being done right. The Coast Guard also worked with the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office for their part of the cleanup. Murphy Oil – like all the other companies that had oil spills because of the storm – fully cooperated with the Coast Guard and took financial responsibility for the cleanup. I assume they cooperated with EPA in a similar manner, for operations in the affected neighborhood. I was in regular contact with, and coordinated joint news release with, the media and community relations representatives from all the responsible party oil companies on a regular basis.

What Happened Next? I Don’t Know. The Power of Denial?

The EPA is sending mixed messages. It recently issued a press release stating that levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, are “slightly elevated” around Murphy’s Oil USA. But the actual test results, buried in fine print, reveal that benzene levels are 45 times higher than the state standard.

The drop headline of the Salon article from which this quote is taken says a lot: “The EPA is failing to protect the Gulf Coast’s homebound citizens from Katrina’s poisons.”

In the years before Katrina, I’d worked with EPA on-scene coordinators and communicators a number of times and never had any complaints. Sure, sometimes there was a weird corporate culture when it came to addressing risk for citizens affected by pollution: they sometimes released information like it was meant for scientists, not regular people, “… please analyze the parts-per-million data compared to background from the ambient sampling mechanism to ….” Getting anyone from the organization to say something was “safe” or “not safe?” Ha! Good luck! You’d have to inject them with sodium pentothal to hear those words, due in large part, I would guess, to the impact of EPA post-9/11 messaging.

I knew that the Murphy spill would likely be “the” story, and it wouldn’t be a good one. Since my incident management organization was working at the same site, I needed to stay on top of the overall piece (Upset people and inattentive reporters were often confused about who was responsible for what, even after really clear explanations. It happens. Lots of mental noise after Katrina for everyone.).  At a staff meeting the day after I arrived on scene, the liaison officer said, “People in St. Bernard Parish with oiled houses from Murphy are angry about delays in the cleanup.” He and I drove to the federal Joint Field Office, on the other side of Baton Rouge, later that day. We met with our public information counterparts and attempted to track down folks from the EPA (he succeeded, I didn’t) to get their read on the Murphy site, from a crisis communication standpoint: they told him they weren’t very concerned about it and didn’t have any plans at the time to address it. I can only assume that they didn’t know what we knew, at the time/weren’t persuaded from him giving them the ground truth of the situation.

People came back to their homes and saw the water and oil damage, which left a “dirty bathtub” type ring inside some affected houses. They wanted answers to their safety and cleanup questions. Activist groups took notice and went to work. The local and regional media increased coverage of the story. A few national media publications picked up the story. Then producers from CNN started calling. A lot.

Floodwaters – and the oil that came with 'em – in Chalmette, La., Sep. 5, 2005.

Floodwaters – and the oil that came with ’em – in Chalmette, La., Sep. 5, 2005. Louisiana DEQ photo, downloaded from NOAA’s Incident News site.

People from the affected publics, as well as parish officials, started calling me about pollution in Chalmette. Even after explaining to them that the Coast Guard’s role in cleanup oversight didn’t extend to the neighborhood, they still wanted answers. More than a few people said, “Please just tell me if it’s safe to be here, because nobody else will.” EPA and Murphy cleanup operations might have been excellent (I never heard any complaints about that, internally), but that wasn’t being communicated. And, of course, some very direct questions were going unanswered.

As a professional courtesy to Murphy and the EPA, I tried to get the spill to the top of their risk communication priority list. I urged Murphy, through their reps, to conduct more risk communication in the affected community, but I never saw that happen. One person’s contribution to the dialogue was an icy legalese of, “We have no comment about ongoing litigation.” I guess she thought class-action lawsuits were more important than telling people what they needed to know to stay safe. Genius! (Full disclosure: My dad started practicing environmental law in the 70s, and specialized in it until he recently retired. We’ve talked about this kind of stuff. I get it.)

The communications folks working for Murphy, who I spoke with almost every day? Top-notch professionals and all-around great people. Was there a risk communication “line” that the company wouldn’t cross, though, because of fears of legal liability? Maybe. But, how many hits does an organization have to take from the media and public before they realize they need to do more in a high concern/low trust situation? Operationally, they were doing the right thing with the cleanup. I understand the frustration when public perception doesn’t align with successful operational work – I did get called in to fix some of that during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, afterall.

My good friend and fellow crisis communicator, Ana (who I had just met at this, her first crisis comms response), and I setup a media briefing with top state, NOAA and Coast Guard officials through our friend Jeff, who was running the joint information center at the Joint Field Office Baton Rouge. We invited the EPA to join us and provide someone to say a few words and answer questions (because we knew a lot of them would be about Murphy, and particularly how it was affecting the returning residents of Chalmette). They declined. I suggested that they should at least attend the briefing, where there would be a handful of local and national media, as observers to listen-in on the questions, because that could help them with their communication efforts. They went to lunch instead.

ESF-10 crude oil fact sheet

St. Bernard Parish officials requested a crude oil safety fact sheet from us at one point, because they were worried about citizen safety in Chalmette, and no one was communicating health and safety information to them or their constituents. I had to carefully craft it to make sure there was no implication that the Coast Guard, or the unified command that I was working for, had any oversight for the residential area oil cleanup.

Why didn’t I just give up? Well, beyond doing a good deed (and doing, what I thought, was part of my job), I wanted there to be zero chance that my organization would be lumped in with theirs when it came to public perception, just because we were responsible for different sections of the same cleanup site (which was confusing to many people, especially those with high concern/low trust). Credibility reversal was on my mind, since the Coast Guard “brand” was never stronger in Louisiana (that happens when your organization rescues more than 30k people). I made it clear to them that I was trying to help them, and I didn’t need to do so, regardless of the longstanding relationship between the Coast Guard and EPA when it came to environmental pollution cleanup.

I’ve made my share of mistakes doing crisis communication. But, this was becoming epic. I was trying to give people who were engulfed in flames buckets of water to douse themselves and their reaction was, “Naw. I’m good.”

If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably thinking, “brandon’s picking through a bushel basket to point out the bad apples.” I might have agreed with you at the time, but not now. I came from a culture of, “Maximum Disclosure; Minimum Delay,” and, “Transparency of information breeds self-correcting behavior.” Reading multiple national news pieces of the EPA’s missteps after Katrina meant you can’t fault any one individual – they were, more li1617940kely than not, victims of their corporate culture circumstances. (And, no, I’m not a total homer: I’ve written about my beloved Coast Guard making similar crisis communication mistakes) All the media criticism wasn’t pointed at individuals, but at the way the entire agency handled their public information.

Almost three weeks after regularly reaching out to the EPA, I was finally given a definitive point of contact for the agency’s public information regarding cleanup of the Murphy spill. She was a thousand miles away, in Washington D.C., and had never heard of the Murphy site. Nice woman, though. She got the ball rolling in the right direction and started making things happen. Murphy also started taking community relations more seriously in Chalmette, dedicating people to the job every day in the neighborhood (for how long, I don’t know). But this was a month after people had started returning to their homes (well, trying to). The reputation damage was done.

Risk Communication Problems Defined

In my personal notes from early in the deployment, I wrote that the EPA was, “getting hammered by the media for being tight-lipped on cleanup.” The U.S. Government Accountability Office’s 2007 report to Congress on the EPA’s Katrina response performance noted that, “EPA’s key communications about the potential health risks from exposure to environmental contamination in New Orleans … did not sufficiently disclose some information that would have helped residents better understand the potential health risks of returning home and how to mitigate them.”

Hey! Who sent my Katrina after action report to the GAO?! Here’s what I wrote in May 2006:

There was a critical need for the EPA to apply risk comms strategy to the cleanup efforts in neighborhoods affected by the Murphy Oil spill. There was a high level of concern regarding the safety of people returning to affected neighborhoods and residents were looking to the EPA to give them information – in particular, the green light to come home.

Unfortunately, residents were getting mixed messages from various levels of government; the local parish government said it was safe to return to some areas, the state DEQ said it was not and the EPA said it was up to the local officials to decide based on the data EPA was providing.

A Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality "Comfort Letter" for a now non-existent address in Chalmette, La.

A Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality “Comfort Letter” for a now non-existent residence in Chalmette, La.

There was also a local grassroots environmental activist group called the Bucket Brigade refuting EPA testing results.

The chief complaint of local residents was that no one, at any level of government, was willing to step forward and answer their most important question: is it safe to return home?

The reality for the EPA was that, while they could sample public areas and release the test results, they could not adequately explain the long or short-term implications of those results, nor did they feel it would be responsible to say simply it was safe or unsafe. The situation was further exacerbated by the fact the EPA was not testing homes, only public access areas within the various neighborhoods (as per EPA mandate.) This meant, technically, their data could not speak to the safety of personal dwellings.

The EPA would point out their test results showed toxins were within pre-hurricane parameters on the one hand, implying it was safe to return to the neighborhood, but on the other hand, they would advise residents to take reasonable precautions, like wearing gloves and respirators when entering their homes. Residents viewed this as a mixed message. The situation was complicated by the EPA’s position that it was the parish leaders’ responsibility to make the final determination on repopulation based, in part, on the data provided by the EPA. Unfortunately, parish leaders were telling residents they, too, were waiting for an OK from the EPA and that they did not understand the data either.

The EPA also came across as very unsympathetic to resident concerns in media reports, repeatedly trying to explain that it wasn’t their responsibility to tell people whether it was safe or not and it wasn’t their responsibility to test people’s homes.

The situation was again exacerbated by the fact that federal, state and local government officials were not communicating with each other and often appeared to position themselves as opponents in the public eye, rather than partners working toward a common goal.

Ultimately, with regard to the Murphy site, the EPA failed to:

  • Effectively communicate their past, present and future actions.
  • Effectively communicate and translate their test results so the public understood what the data meant, and what it didn’t mean.
  • Effectively communicate their role and responsibilities in relation to the role of the state and local governments.
  • Effectively communicate empathy and understanding.
  • Effectively collaborate with state and local governments in terms of public information operations.
  • Effectively liaise with local stakeholders and key influencers to help communicate key messaging and information.

Groundhog Day

I demobilized from Katrina deployment #2 and was back six weeks later for deployment #3 – working at another multi-agency oil and hazmat incident command post in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, La., with both EPA and Coast Guard people in the Unified Command (I spent my “down-time” between the two deployments at a mercury spill in Oregon, a ship grounding in Puerto Rico and a liquid asphalt spill in Virginia, with Paul. Busy autumn!).

Cleanup for the Murphy spill was ongoing, and the EPA was taking communicating it much more seriously. More than that, the EPA had elevated risk and general public information activities as a response priority, and were doing it well. There were dozens of people dedicated solely to communicating safety information to impacted citizens. The agency continued improving their corporate communication culture by developing and delivering an advanced public information officer course, with lessons learned from Katrina, for their crisis communicators in early 2006; they held an agency incident command system integration symposium later that year. Lessons learned: implemented!

Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality photos were downloaded from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Incident News website. They have not been altered.

Special thanks to long-time Coast Guard colleagues Russ Tippets and Dan Taylor for sharing their images from Katrina. Russ was part of Paul’s and my crisis communication team that spent months of our lives dedicated to Hurricane Katrina response in 2005-06, and is still doing public information for the organization. Dan’s photo is from his “Hurricane Katrina: From One Crew’s Point of View” Flickr stream album, used under creative commons license. Dan was a Coast Guard rescue helicopter pilot that saved a LOT of people in the wake of Katrina with his crew – I recommend looking at all of his photos from the album. Dan’s photo featured above has a poignant back-story, for those interested. None of their photos have been altered.

The image of a Louisiana DEQ “Comfort Letter” is a screen shot from the LDEQ’s “Post-Hurricane Information” page on their website, under the “notice to residents: Murphy Oil Spill” tab. Look up 3000 Jacob Drive on their site, then search it on Google maps – where there once was a house, there is now just grass.

Google Earth image used in accordance with Google’s “Use of Images” policy (which is awesome).

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