“Science is always patchy. We know a lot about things,and then we have new discoveries,” Gary Machlis,leader of the Strategic Sciences Work Group,said Monday during a presentation at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
Jonathon Jarvis,National Park Service director,said he formed the SSWG because incident command was focused on short-term actions and response,but long-term considerations were also necesary.
“There just was not the time or energy to expend on the long-term consequences of the spill within the Incident Command response,” Jarvis said.
Machlis,who is the science adviser to Jarvis and a professor at the University of Idaho,said the SSWG was created as an experiment to assess the spill rapidly and provide usable knowledge to those making decisions in response to the spill.
The group was charged with bridging the gap between the environmental damage of the spill and its social damage.
“I would certainly not say that the purpose of the SSWG was to respond,” Marcia McNutt,U.S. Geological Survey director,said in an email response to an interview request.
Instead,the cross-disciplinary team,which included individuals from the government and private sector,constructed scenarios of possible consequences following the spill.
“For any trajectory that looked high negative impact,and likely,we would look for ways to intervene in the chain of consequences to interrupt the cascade or mitigate it,” McNutt said.
The basis of the team’s work was the principle that biophysical,socioeconomic and cultural resources interact with social systems,from individuals to materials to capital.
“This was the checklist that said,‘Have we thought about how,for example,
the spill might affect the churches? Or how it might affect the Houma Indians differently than it might affect the Cajuns? how it might affect differently the new immigrants to New Orleans?’” Machlis said.
McNutt said officials were briefed on highly likely,high-impact scenarios such as economic consequences on the disadvantaged and the possibility of oil lodged in marsh sediment resurfacing during storms.
The long-range focus of strategic science has been important in restoration planning in the Gulf,Jarvis said.
The science is one the Interior Department will begin incorporating in future disasters.
“We have now institutionalized this process within DOI and will be using this for future emergencies,ideally before they occur,” McNutt said.
Even with that level of planning,however,Machlis said he believes science during crisis is necessary to account for unforeseen consequences following everything from wildfires to bioterrorism.
“We can anticipate the event. It’s the unanticipated consequences of the event that will capture us. If we can learn that,the DOI leadership could advance a kind of safety culture for energy and resource management in the 21st century,” Machlis said. “We have learned a great deal from this tragedy and environmental disaster,but there is more to be done.”
Reach reporter Hope Rurik at [email protected] or 202-326-9861. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.