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Reducing the Impact of Environmental Disasters

When an environmental disaster such as an oil spill happens, the response must be swift.

In the example of a major oil spill, thousands of people are involved in the response. They might work for private companies or various levels of government -- federal, state or local. And some are simply concerned citizens who volunteer their time out of concern for the environment.

Some workers are highly trained, such as engineers who try to figure out what went wrong. Environmental scientists try to protect the environment. Emergency response managers coordinate people and resources to protect communities and companies.

Others might be physical workers (or volunteers) who do things like wash the oil off birds on the beach. And then there are fishermen and private contractors who deploy booms on the ocean (booms are curtain-like devices that help trap and redirect oil).

Most of the experts who respond to environmental disasters have engineering or scientific training, says Edward Overton. Overton is the head of a federal chemical hazard assessment team for oil spills. He's also a retired professor in the School of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University.

"The engineering background is associated with rebuilding and understanding why the accident happened," says Overton. "The scientific backgrounds are associated with understanding the impact on the environment and the ecology, and things of that nature."

Environmental disasters are unpredictable. They can happen anywhere at any time. And there can be large gaps in time between major disasters (fortunately!)

"Response to a spill is an episodic event rather than an ongoing event," says Overton. "So between events... you've got to have something else to keep you occupied doing work."

What opportunities do environmental scientists have for work between environmental disasters?

"Typically those [opportunities] are working for other types of environmental concerns -- environmental consulting, environmental analysis, studying other aspects of the environment," says Overton.

"And what happens is that during a major event like [an oil spill], you have to set the ongoing stuff aside and you have to go out and get involved with the spill."

From the perspective of an environmental scientist, there's always something to work on. So says Linda Lusby, a professor of environmental science.

"There's always an environmental disaster," says Lusby. "The environment is a disaster, so we don't have to wait for the big things to happen.

"[Environmental scientists] are working flat out all the time. And a lot of companies and municipalities and others are now looking at more of a proactive approach -- 'What can we be doing to keep us out of trouble in the future?'"

If you're an environmental scientist, you might work as a university professor, like Lusby. Or you might work for government departments responsible for the environment or disaster planning.

Environmental scientists also work for large companies. They help them develop disaster response plans. They also study how to reduce the environmental impact of the companies' actions.

People of all education and skill levels are needed when environmental disasters occur.

"There are lots of low-skilled jobs that are associated with the cleanup effort, just going out there and getting the oil up, for example," says Overton.

"[And] there are typically efforts to look at the damage associated with the spill or with an environmental incident. Those are typically the more high skilled jobs.

"Typically they would require at least a bachelor's degree," Overton says. "People running the [disaster response] programs typically have a PhD."

Graduates of environmental science programs learn many different things. They are often generalists rather than specialists. This makes them effective in responding to environmental disasters, says Lusby.

"A lot of our universities now are creating specialists in one thing or another, and they look at the very narrow picture," says Lusby. "But environmental scientists look at the big picture, they look at the interactions between things.

"[Employers] look for environmental scientists because they can understand what's going on from a geological perspective, a hydrological perspective, the biology, some of the legal things, the chemistry," Lusby adds. "And they can look at that whole and say, 'OK, we need to address it from several angles.'"

Although many environmental scientists have a master's degree or PhD, Lusby says a four-year degree is often enough.

"There's way too many students right now thinking they have to go on to grad school," says Lusby.

"I find it really distressful. I know the word is out there that you have to have a master's to get a job, but I've got some students that have really good positions and they have their undergrad."

Many of those students end up as environmental consultants, either with a consulting firm or at a large company. Others end up in various levels of government, from local to federal.

And companies are starting to realize the value of investing money in prevention by having an environmental expert on staff.

"The bigger companies are [spending money on prevention]," says Lusby. "They have someone there, because for them it's worth it. A lawsuit over a spill is a lot more expensive than paying the salary of a person."

Ali Gheith helps trains disaster response managers. He's a past director of an emergency and disaster management program at the Metropolitan College of New York (MCNY).

Emergency response managers handle all kinds of disasters, says Gheith. These include human-caused environmental disasters like oil spills, natural disasters like earthquakes, or terrorist attacks.

"The approach to this has to be based on lessons learned and best practices," says Gheith. "We learn from other states, other nations [and] how they responded, so we can minimize the damage. We cannot, for example, prevent a natural disaster from happening, but we can mitigate its effect on the community."

The MCNY program was created in the aftermath of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. At first, most of the program's students were from the various uniformed professions -- fire fighters, police, paramedics.

But disaster management is increasingly drawing students from other backgrounds such as psychology and social work, public health, human services, and the private sector, says Gheith.

"You see a lot of interest now from the private sector for the continuity of operations component (COOP) of it," says Gheith. "Many people in the private sector right now are sending students to come and study continuity of operations."

What this means is that private companies are concerned with how to keep their business running, and keep their employees safe, while they are responding to a major disaster.

Disaster response managers end up in many different places. But many of the same questions and challenges come up, regardless of the setting. How do you best protect people and property? How do you contain and respond to the damage already done? How do you prevent future incidents?

"You could work with the private sector, you could work with the feds, you could work with the state, you could work with the local government, and you can work with local communities," says Gheith.

Unfortunately, Lusby expects there to be a growing number of environmental crises in the future.

"It's because we've really pushed the environment, in almost all perspectives, to the limit," says Lusby. "And when you've weakened something so much, it starts to go."

Those alarming words are nothing to cheer. But they do mean there will probably be plenty of work to keep environmental scientists, engineers, emergency response managers and many others very busy in the years to come.

Links for Kids
Test your knowledge of natural disasters in a fun way!

National Emergency Management Association (NEMA)
Check out the job listings, links and latest news

Disaster Preparedness Information Center
Includes a list of emergency agencies, weather sources and information on preparing for an emergency

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