Preparation and communication key to handling oil spill crisis in Huntington Beach
Some might think luck played into the quick response to the oil spill at Huntington Beach, Calif., in October, but despite a couple of providential circumstances, Public Information Officer Jennifer Carey said preparation and established relationships were key.
The spill occurred on Friday, Oct. 1, reportedly 4.5 miles off the coast of Huntington Beach. City officials first learned of the spill at an emergency operations center meeting planned for a large air show being held in Huntington Beach that weekend.
“Luckily, we happened to have someone from the Coast Guard in that meeting. If not, I don’t know when we would’ve found out,” Carey said.
Anytime a large event is hosted by the city, city officials assemble an emergency operations center team and meet for support in case something should go wrong. Carey said she was there in her role as public information officer for the police department. There were also representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration and Huntington Beach Fire and Marine Safety.
The Coast Guard official received word there was a possible oil spill, but until 12:30 p.m., city officials still had not received notification that there was a spill and where it was located, but the Coast Guard official was “working with us to get confirmation.”
Carey said sometimes residents will call 911 to report a strong smell of gas, something that happens a couple of times a year. Typically, dispatch will contact the Coast Guard and other agencies to look into it, and sometimes it ends up being nothing.
However, since so many officials were in the same room when the news came, “it was the best-case scenario combined with the worst-case scenario,” Carey said.
On Saturday, officials were expecting 1.5 million people on the beach for the air show as well as hundreds of boats in the ocean. The Huntington Beach Air Show was canceled in 2020, so the organizers came back with a big bang in 2021. Carey said this air show was only the second time that the Blue Angels, the Thunderbirds and Canadian Snowbirds were all at the same show.
“It was a huge spectacle,” she said.
Officials wondered whether to evacuate the beach and how to get word to all the boats in the ocean.
“Fortunately, because of the air show, everyone was in the room, and there was no lag time in assembling people.”
The Coast Guard representative initially got word of the spill through a boat radio frequency channel, and he spent a lot of time reaching out to his contacts and provided Carey with the public information officer contact for the Coast Guard so she could connect with that person right away.
Crisis management process
Within the city, the Huntington Beach Fire Department has a plan in place in the instance of an oil spill.
Carey said the department recently held a drill to be proactive and to keep updated on training, rather than just “having the plans sitting in a binder on a shelf.”
Another fortunate event was the fact the fire department had recently received a grant, which allowed it to acquire search-and-rescue equipment called booms.
“It’s useful for oil spills and keeps oil out of our sensitive ecological areas, wetlands and ecological reserves — it’s critical to keep it out of there,” Carey said.
Fire and Marine Safety began deploying booms Saturday afternoon in inlets, and it also notified various boats working in public safety to keep an eye out for oil. It also sent staff to the Unified Command Center to represent the department.
Carey said, with the city’s location along the coast, it has a lot of environmental resources.
“A lot of nonprofits take the lead caring for these areas — like the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve,” she said.
California Fish and Wildlife works with the nonprofits to oversee the day-to-day operations and cleanups for areas like Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Bolsa Chica Land Trust and Huntington Beach Wetland and Wildlife Care Center. Carey said the Wetland and Wildlife Care Center is the main emergency wildlife care center to take injured wildlife and is activated anytime anything happens.
“We work very closely with representatives of those three agencies to determine what their needs are,” she said.
Carey reported that some oil got into the Talbert Marsh before the city could get the booms in place. She described the boom as a long arm floaties — an inflated buoy that runs the length of the inlet to keep the oil out.
Unified Command contracted Patriot Environmental Services for the cleanup. Representatives from Huntington Beach were recruited to assist.
“We are the ones in the trenches and could identify priorities so we worked closely with them, collaborating so we all understood the game plan. Patriot was great about asking for feedback from the city,” Carey said.
However, it takes awhile to get everyone mobilized, and there was a two- to three-day lag before Patriot started work. Carey said city officials weren’t willing to wait so they reached out to local contacts to get boats in the water to identify pockets of oil. Huntington Beach Police Department has helicopters, and it used them to identify where oil was located so resources could be directed there.
She said the city had a few cleanup boats through public safety agencies that offered to help.
“The first two to three days of the oil spill were chaotic for us. It took awhile to get Unified Command established,” she said, adding, “We weren’t willing to wait; we were doing anything possible to get people out there to start cleanup.”
She added the early information wasn’t always accurate. “Unified Command projected the oil spill would hit our shores Monday, but it hit Saturday evening so we had to take it upon ourselves to address it as a city. At the beginning, all hands were on deck, and there was an effort to reach out to contacts internally, seeing who was available to help.”
After the first couple of days, Unified Command worked well. As for how long cleanup took, Patriot crews were out there for at least a month, according to Carey. The city conducted its own independent water quality testing — testing for oil and carbons. Orange County did water quality testing, but the city hired its own independent contractor and did testing twice a week.
“Fortunately, our water was really clean, and we were able to reopen beaches fairly early and then other cities followed suit,” she said.
The water quality was great even as cleanup was ongoing. Carey explained after the beaches were open when the tide would go out, it would leave a black trail on the beach and Patriot did a good job cleaning the beach. She said typically crude oil stays on the surface, but because this was post-production oil, it had thinner viscosity so some oil sank in and settled into the sand under the surface.
“So we’ll likely see tar balls washing up on the beach for a while,” she said.
Since some oil made it to the beach at Talbert Marsh, officials were very focused on cleaning that up.
Carey thinks these partnerships worked by “having representatives from the city integrated in Unified Command.” This included having someone from the fire department within operational command and activating a joint informational center.
Carey added she had a support staff person who she could send to take part in the joint informational center.
“It’s great to have people within the facility getting the most current information,” she said.
Then Carey could relay that information to other cities, and they could go back and forth sharing what they were seeing on the ground. Both the Coast Guard headquarters and Amplify’s headquarters were in Long Beach, 30 to 40 miles north of Huntington Beach.
She said that created a challenge because they weren’t necessarily there seeing what was going on so it was great having locals who knew the coast and the geography and understood the dynamics.
“For them to say, ‘We’ve seen this weather pattern, and this is likely to happen, or due to the geography of the coastline, this will happen,’” she said.
Orange County had representatives there, and while a lot of cities relied on the county, Huntington Beach officials felt it was more advantageous to have a representative there. Carey said from day one, Huntington Beach was the first to find out about the oil spill and came out quicker than other affected cities because of having the Coast Guard partner in the room.
“I tried to take the lead in working with and on behalf of the other cities and tried to ensure everyone’s interests were addressed,” she said. “I spoke regularly with a lot of other city’s officials, relaying information to Unified Command, and I’d ask my counterparts for information and vice versa.”
She said they utilized a variety of communication methods — a lot of text messages and phone calls with Unified Command. Within the city, officials had Zoom calls twice a day.
For informing the public, officials established a web page that would be updated daily throughout the oil spill, and they directed people to the website for the latest information. They posted press releases from Unified Command, water quality results and photos on the page. They also used social media and press releases.
“We held our first press conference Saturday at 8 p.m., and we were the first to push out the information,” she said, adding she had her first interaction with the Coast Guard public information officer 30 minutes before that first press conference.
She said the media covering the press conferences typically livestreamed the press conferences, too. Local newspapers and TV station were contacted daily by Carey.
The city also used the email distribution list to get the word out and placed signage on the beaches.
“Surprisingly, with all that, people were still not realizing the beach was closed,” she said. “We had a pretty wide spread communication effort, and fortunately, we had a lot of different methods we could tap into.”
“One of the things I learned is you can count on other agencies to help, but at the end of the day, it’s on your city to make sure everything’s taken care of — be proactive,” Carey said. “There’s no such thing as too much planning.”
According to Carey, the police department and the fire department train for all sorts of crises, hoping they’ll never have to use it. In this case, fortunately, they’d just trained six months earlier so it was fresh in their minds.
“Also, there’s no such thing as too much communication — make use of all the various channels.” Carey added, “Huntington Beach has close to 200,000 residents, but it feels like a small town. There was a lot of community support — a lot of people stepped in to help clean up, donate money and with ecological reserves. It can’t be overstated how important these types of connections are.”
She advises no matter the crisis your municipality may encounter, identify the crisis communication plan up front, understand what agencies need to be in the room and who the three people representing each agency are. These are crucial. Have well-established representation in each room so you’re gathering information in a timely, accurate fashion.
Take time to determine what’s true and false and identify the people who can help make those determinations.
Bottom line, managing a crisis is like what you learned in the scouts — be prepared. “There’s no such thing as over-preparation,” Carey said.
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