Preparing for Short-Term and Long-Term Recovery Planning In Light of a Major Oil Spill

by Mike J. Robinson, PBS&J, Emergency Management Division

Many aspects to the Gulf Coast Oil Disaster that are going to challenge us in numerous ways in the coming months and years. For those of us who work for and with local governments, one of the things we need to be thinking about right now, even though we’re still dealing with our response to the incident, is how we’re going to handle the short-term and long-term recovery planning needs that are being generated as a result of this event.

Obviously there are many aspects to the Gulf Coast Oil Disaster that are going to challenge us in numerous ways in the coming months and years. For those of us who work for and with local governments, one of the things we need to be thinking about right now, even though we’re still dealing with our response to the incident, is how we’re going to handle the short-term and long-term recovery planning needs that are being generated as a result of this event. There is little doubt this is going to be a complex exercise in planning and one that will be closely associated with the local and unique impacts of the spill on individual jurisdictions.

Hopefully the following discussion of some of the relevant key issues will help prepare at least an initial checklist of items for consideration as your local recovery planning teams begin their work.

Short-Term Recovery Planning

I’m not even sure we know at this point what the timeframe for what we in the emergency management community would call “short-term recovery planning” is going to be for the Gulf Coast Oil Disaster. For the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the long-term recovery planning period seemed to start about 6 months after the release of the oil from the tanker in Prince William Sound. So the window available for the short-term recovery period would have been less than 6 months and, in that case, concurrent with the cleanup efforts which were taking full advantage of the summer operational months.

The following are seven key issues that Gulf Coast communities are likely to face with regard to short-term recovery planning:

1. Financing the Short-Term Recovery Process

Clearly the Gulf Coast Oil Disaster is not a scenario communities along the Gulf Coast have previously budgeted for. Efforts will need to be made to determine what elements of the short-term recovery process will result in associated costs, initial budgets will need to be prepared, and actual expenditures will need to be carefully tracked for possible reimbursement as well as for future statistical analysis. Also, grant programs and potential sources for reimbursement will need to be identified and tracked as well.  

2. Communications Planning That Incorporates Productive Community Input and Involvement

One thing I think we’re seeing—especially with this disaster—is the way in which the public is heavily embracing some of the newer online communication tools, such as the commenting features that are available now on many news websites where readers can post comments following a news article that reflect their opinions, observations, etc. I think we’re also seeing a new comfort level with social networking media as well, such as Twitter and Facebook, in terms of sharing information in real-time about the changing conditions of the event as they are occurring. I think we’re likely to see a real need for the recognition and incorporation of this technology in our recovery planning activities for this event. 

3. Immediate Health and Safety Concerns

There are more layers to this issue than we can address in this article, but there are at least two main categories of health and safety concerns that communities may wish to recognize in their local recovery plans: potential ongoing health and safety issues related to oil contamination itself (e.g., the possibility of contaminated seafood) and potential ongoing health and safety issues related to the response to the oil spill (e.g., exposure to dispersants used to combat the spill). There is still ongoing education taking place to help inform communities of their actual risk, and local plans can evolve over time to reflect changes in best available information.  

4. Economic Stabilization

Economic stabilization following a major disaster can be a tricky and frustrating experience for local governments, partly because so many economic factors are out of the local government’s control. One thing communities may wish to consider is focusing on using local business and local workforce in short-term recovery activities. Communities can also facilitate job training and placement assistance based on the recovering economy. Of course it’s always important to maintain and grow any existing large employers, and communities may wish to encourage small businesses to develop partnership assistance networks to expand and make visible the resources they have available to them.

5. Environmental Protection, Stabilization and “Tradeoffs”

When a shoreline is threatened by an approaching oil spill, responders must decide fairly quickly which locations they will attempt to protect. Priorities must often be set, especially when dealing with a large oil spill affecting a large complex coastal area. In order to do this, responders must identify those areas that are considered most important and then determine which of those areas can be protected, given the resources available. Making these decisions sometimes requires the consideration of environmental “tradeoffs.” As evidenced by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, many aspects of an ecosystem will return to normal over time, but it is almost impossible to see a "complete return to conditions exactly as they were before the spill." Understanding what tradeoffs occur during the response phase will help set expectations during the short- and long-term recovery phases.

6. Establishment of “Setaside Sites”

Setaside sites are areas that have been oiled but that have been intentionally left uncleaned for study, as was done after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and subsequently studied by NOAA and others. One of the questions these setaside sites are meant to answer is, did any of the spill cleanup measures speed up or slow down the re-growth of plants or the re-habitation of animals that populated these areas prior to the disaster? The extent to which Gulf Coast communities may wish to designate setaside sites would need to be clearly established, as appropriate, before cleanup operations reach areas to be left uncleaned.  

7. Protection of Historical and Cultural Assets

Southern Louisiana, the Mississippi Gulf Coast and coastal areas of Alabama and Florida are all home to a variety of historical and cultural resources. These resources can range from historical buildings to ancestral burial sites. The protection and cleanup of such sensitive community assets must be handled in a coordinated and approved manner in order to ensure that the assets are not unnecessarily damaged or altered in any way from short-term and long-term recovery operations.   

Long-Term Recovery Planning

At some point, the short-term planning phase will transition to a long-term planning phase, possibly around 6 months after the conclusion of the event. What complicates the current Gulf Coast Oil Disaster timeline to some extent is that, with the Exxon Valdez oil spill for example which happened within a matter of hours, the Deepwater Horizon event is still occurring 64 days after the initial “incident” (at the time this article was written). And, unfortunately, with oil spills the long-term recovery phase can be quite long. In some respects, Prince William Sound is still recovering from the 1989 oil spill some 20 years later.

The following are four additional issues that Gulf Coast communities may face with regard to long-term recovery planning from this event:

1. Financing the Long-Term Recovery Process

The ability of a local government to implement a successful long-term recovery strategy is often closely associated with the amount of money available to fund projects and policies. Funding may take the form of outside grant awards or locally-based revenue and financing. The costs associated with these activities will likely vary considerably. In some cases, policies are tied primarily to staff time or administrative costs associated with the creation and monitoring of a given program. In other cases, direct expenses are linked to actual projects which can require a substantial commitment from local, state, Federal and private funding sources.

2. Economic Growth

There is a wide range of projects and activities that can take place within an impacted community that can promote economic growth following a disaster. These can include marketing efforts, existing industry programs, workforce development, improvements to the local business climate and just an enhanced focus on economic development in general. For example, some communities may have an economic development department that could look into adopting new incentives to encourage new businesses to locate in the affected community.

3. Environmental Rehabilitation and Growth

This is a complex issue and the challenge for local long-term recovery planning teams will be to work toward defining what is meant by environmental recovery in a given community and truly understanding what that means. One point to make here is that ecosystems are constantly adjusting themselves anyway. Some changes would occur inevitably even without the impacts of the Gulf Coast Oil Disaster. How your community identifies “recovery” and visualizes its ecosystem’s rehabilitation and growth will be key activities of the long-term recovery planning team. 

4. Revitalization

One definition of “revitalization” talks about the act of reviving or condition of being revived: renewal, rebirth, renaissance, resurgence, resurrection and revival, and “see also” awareness. Looking at the first part of that definition in light of what we know from the Exxon Valdez oil spill (in that the ecosystem may never be *exactly* the same again), it may fall to the long-term recovery planning team to present ideas and information on how the area may be different but better in some ways than it was before (understanding that it won’t be exactly the *same* as it was before). Looking at the second part of the definition, I think it’s very interesting that the word revitalization is closely associated with the word awareness. And certainly that will be a key element to recovering from this disaster. 

About This Article: This article has been prepared by a senior emergency management planner and as such reflects the practices of comprehensive emergency management. The outline followed here may not comprehensively reflect the priorities of all disciplines assisting in recovery efforts from a large-scale and wide-ranging event such as the Deepwater Horizon incident. Sources used for background research for this article include the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration, Wikipedia, PBS&J project files,,  and other reliable sources.

Contact Information

Steven N. Glenn

Associate Vice President and Division Manager

PBS&J Emergency Management

1616 East Millbrook Road, Suite 310

Raleigh, NC 27609



What challenges are your community facing with regard to short-term recovery efforts?

What types of challenges are your community facing with regard to long-term recovery efforts?

What do you consider your single biggest obstacle in recovery?

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