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Volunteers, agencies counter misinformation about oil spill

By Air Force Tech Sgt. Emily F. Alley

Pensacola, Fla. – Rumors have been spreading about the oil spill. Cancelled vacations, due to exaggerated rumors about dirty beaches, can cause a languishing economy in an otherwise pristine beach town.

“Yes, there are tar balls here and there,” said Bianca Ephraim, a receptionist at the National Parks Service, “But our water is clear as glass.”

She takes calls, up to 70 a day. Her job hasn’t changed because of the spill, but the volume has increased. She dismisses a lot of rumors. Locals, or tourists planning a visit, want to know the truth about the beaches.

“They’ll call and say, ‘I’ve heard this,’” she described, “it’s not that they don’t believe us, but it’s a rumor.”

In Pensacola, the Parks Service is designating information volunteers to work on beaches to answer questions as visitors arrive. Draped in a bright yellow vest, they are a local resource- volunteers are on the beaches every day to answer questions and update a hotline if oil is spotted.

“They’re going to listen and try to help someone find the information they need,” described ranger Kirby Shedlowski, who added that visitors appreciate the service.

“The public has been super-receptive,” she announced. “I’ll hear, ‘we’re so happy to see someone out here that we can ask a question, find out more information.’ They like having a face to go with the information.”

A Pensacola native, Pattie Krakowski, has lived in the area for 15 years and spends time on the beaches. She volunteered to help give information out to other locals after experiencing her own frustration, when she couldn’t find out about the oil prevention and cleanup effort. Now, however, she said the situation is improving.

On the beach, she reflected, “I asked the park rangers why there were so many boats on the horizon, why there were ATVs on the shore, there were all these small planes, helicopters flying overhead,” and she was disappointed when the ranger didn’t know.

Shedlowski  appreciates the locals’ willingness to help.

“We had great community response,” she said. “The volunteers we’re getting are very passionate.”

One of the areas of greatest concern for the locals are wildlife. Rescue workers have been handling similar requests for information. Harv Wilson, a contractor who assists animal recovery, has gotten calls, sometimes from people in tears, asking what will happen to the birds.

“People want to know what’s being done,” Wilson sympathized.

He also had to address rumors, some of which border on conspiracy theory, that he flatly dismisses. One rumor claimed oil-coated birds were being stolen from beaches at night, in order to hide the evidence of the spill.

Despite the false rumors, Wilson stresses that a process is in place to recover and clean the animals.

“Good people are doing a good job,” he described, “We have an organized group of folks.”

With the help of the volunteers, some confusion about the process- both the cleanup and prevention- can be alleviated.

“A lot of people want to know exactly what will happen next,” said Shedlowski.

For now, however, the beaches in Pensacola are open for business.