Politics, the spill and crisis management–an insider talks about the realities

I found this guest editorial in the Boston Globe by Juliette Kayyem to be quite remarkable. She was an assistant secretary of DHS during the Gulf Spill and since she no longer is, she speaks with surprising candor about what was going on behind the scenes with the political interference in the spill.

Here are some insights worthy of highlighting:

The disconnect between operations and politics:

In hindsight, it’s clear to me that there were two different responses to the spill — one political, one operational. Despite some fits and starts, the operational response largely worked. But it was the political response that garnered so much attention, and seemed so disconnected from what was going on day-to-day operationally.

Why the administration interfered:

Yet, the whole time, we were playing by a rulebook that no one could admit we were playing by. This was true not just for the White House, but for the governors and local leaders as well.

On the interference by the governors:

Not one of the Gulf governors — all of them Republican, at least two potentially running against President Obama in 2012 — would accept that his own experts had signed off on plans that, essentially, they no longer liked in the harsh light of day.

On the “boom wars:”

But boom was a quantifiable thing, and no governor could be seen as having less than the guy next door.

Just to summarize this a bit for the purpose of looking ahead. The ground rules she talks about, the use of the Incident Command System and the Joint Information Center established for oil spill response in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 were essentially tossed out by the administration. The reasons she provides–public expectations (I should add, driven by media intent on assigning blame) and political pressure by local and state officials resulted in overriding decisions by Incident Commanders to respond to political pressure (eg., boom wars). More than that, it meant throwing out all the rules for collaborative communication responsive to Incident Command with direct White House control on all response information. As the Coast Guard ISPR pointed out, this effectively shut down the communication operation, much to the harm of public trust.

I’ve asked myself this question many times since then–was this the best strategy for the Obama administration? He largely succeeded in avoiding the blame and the “Obama’s Katrina” label which was a serious risk. So, it looks like it was successful. But there were many others who paid the price for this, unfairly and unjustly in my mind. What if the administration had played by the rules? What if they had allowed the response to patiently explain to the reporters that if they wanted to understand how the response was being run they should do a little more investigation than looking at the latest tweets and understand why OPA 90 was set up the way it was. What if they were to explain that BP’s role was necessary, that the response was a collaborative effort under the supervision of the federal government, that the National Contingency Plan and the Area Contingency Plans worked out well in advance were being implemented and they were based on best science? What if they were to explain that boom is being placed where it will do the most good, rather than where Jindal, Nungesser and Tafaro were screaming for it, or where it would serve as a nice background for the president’s press conferences?

Regardless of how history ultimately treats the administration’s interference and throwing out the rules, as Kayyem accurately portrays, one thing is clear. Throwing out the rules has left the oil industry and the emergency management community in great confusion. What will happen next time when the federal government gets involved? Will we use the processes that the government has established, namely NIMS. Or will they once again, say that staying within NIMS is not in the administration’s best interest and just wing it? And what does winging it mean for those trying to respond on the local and regional level? What does it mean for oil spill response? What rules will be used and what does that mean for how they will communicate and try to build public trust?

4 thoughts on “Politics, the spill and crisis management–an insider talks about the realities”

  1. I agree with your interpretation, Gerald, but I look at it from an emergency management perspective and let me tell you, it’s just as confusing.

    Emergency managers have a difficult enough time trying to figure out the conflicting messages coming out of DHS that seemingly recommend EM use ESF-based NRF organization as well as ICS. The two demands are not easily compatible. And to see that when the feds actually do get involved both might get thrown out the window; well, it just seems like all of the hoops we’ve got to jump through are useless wastes of time and money.

    ICS works, and we all know it. But the conflicting messages coming from the federal government do nothing but worsen the situation. In fact, I’d go so far as to have the feds get rid of ICS and do something else (though no preferred, obviously) just so long as they settle on one system and let us all know about it.


  2. Great post and comment by Jim Garrow! Once again it is established by the facts of the case that there is NO civil domestic crisis response system or chain of command so when faced with political needs they will always overwhelm the best laid plans of mice and men. One might ask why the dictate in the HOMELAND SECURITY STRATEGY of 2002 (July), the HOMELAND SECURITY ACT of 2002 (November), and the language of HSPD-5 (February 2003) that various plans be merged including the NCP for Oil Spills and Hazardous Materials Releases, last updated in 1994 at 40 CFR Part 300, and done in response to the OPA of 1990.
    In a brilliant and largely unavailable report sent by the President to the Congress in December 1993 based on a multi-agency task force headed by EPA and Coast
    Guard many gaps in response were identified. Few were fixed by the 40 CFR Part 300 update identified in that 1993 report. Even today that report is not available virtually a tragic omission. What that report suggests IMO is that Congress must fix the gaps when in fact most of the gaps are fixable by the Executive Branch. I am sure Lisa Jackson, Debbie Dietrich at EPA and even the Thad Allen’s have no idea a blue print was laid out that should have been fixed by EPA and the Coast Guard if not in 1994 long before the events of 2010. Well we seem not to understand [probably due to turnover, ego, and hubris] that some efforts in the past–James Makris led the production of the report and he died within a month of retiring from EPA–were the tough work of governance and civil response to various problematic events. No one working anywhere in the Coast Guard, EPA, FEMA or the resilience staff of the NSC should not have practically memorized that report.
    C’est La Vie?

  3. One might call the whole situation “the politics of ICS”. As Mr. Garrow states “ICS works..” and there isn’t anything else that the feds can do to replace it that will minimize the politics. ICS, ESFs, the NRF and all their associated plans make sense ONLY when the big picture is seen and that there’s a reason for coordination. Way too often that coordination means letting someone else have control and the microphone. What do you expect when ICS says there should be only microphone? Thad Allen’s system worked because he saw the big picture and he had the microphone…no one else. My current take from DC is that despite the years of work towards an organized response, so few people still understand ICS.

    At all levels of government, we still (and will always) see the practice of micromanaging. Elected officials who know very little, if anything, about crises refusing to let the experts do their jobs. Somehow, sitting aside and waiting for the experts to work out the plan is unacceptable. (Yes, even the experts fail sometimes too but the chances of them succeeding are much higher than elected officials.) Action, even if its the wrong action, is somehow the more preferred route which leads me to my last observation.

    Watching the rig fire in the first few days of the scenario, I only saw one comment made regarding the attempt at extinguishing the fire and am VERY surprised that I’ve seen little said about whether or not this effort contributed (or caused) the sinking of the rig. At least three boats throwing at least a ton of water each per minute onto the platform did not help its stabilization. Depending on the rig construction, and how water is channeled off the platform, it is much easier to believe that the tilting and the sinking of the platform had much less to do with a gas/oil fire than the poorly distributed accumulation of water on the platform. Had the efforts been focused on shutting off the oil flow from underneath the platform while it was still afloat, granted the whole platform may have still been a loss but it certainly would not have created the environmental disaster that followed.

  4. Good comments all. Quick response to Chris and his thought that securing the blown out well from beneath might have saved the rig…Efforts were under way almost immediately to activate the BOP down on the seabed using remote operated vehicles, even as water was being poured on the rig above. These efforts were unsuccessful. Pending investigative reports will likely provide more details on why the BOP didn’t work as designed. The Coast Guard report did highlight fire water flow as a possible reason the rig destabilized and eventually toppled over.

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