Special Reports

Volunteers look for way to help

GULF BREEZE — Debbie Gunnoe wanted to work as a volunteer cleaning tar balls and oil from the sugar white beaches of Florida Panhandle that she loves so much, but she’s been rebuffed.

BP PLC has turned away Gunnoe and other would-be volunteers because the oil giant is using only paid and trained workers to clean up the mess caused by its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Instead, the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and nearly 70 other like-minded citizens are helping in a less direct way as visitor information volunteers at the Gulf Islands National Seashore. They are being stationed at various National Seashore areas to answer visitors’ questions, report sightings of tar balls, oil or oil-soaked wildlife and offer safety tips — the oil is classified as a hazardous material.

“I’m quite concerned about our way of life and I’m frustrated with what’s going on,” said Gunnoe, 55, of nearby Navarre. “It’s the first opportunity I’ve heard where the people who live in the area can actually get out and do something and make a difference.”

Gunnoe is among 48 people who signed up after a pair of training sessions Sunday at the National Seashore’s headquarters in this Pensacola suburb. They will join 20 others previously trained, including Tony Mitkevicious, 62, a retired civil service worker from Pensacola.

“It’s beautiful out here,” Mitkevicious said Monday at the National Seashore’s Opal Beach area. “I see dolphins every day out in the gulf, sting rays, a lot of fish. I meet a lot of people from all over and they’re really nice.”

As Mitkevicious spoke a BP cleanup crew began looking for oil and tar balls, but he doubted they’d find any. He said he already had walked the beach and didn’t see anything.

Each volunteer is committed to spending at least one three-hour shift each week for three months at beaches on a pair of barrier islands or the Seashore’s campground.

“One of the biggest things for us is that the gulf has seen it’s share of disasters — natural — but this is something they haven’t seen and there’s a lot of questions and a lot of confusion,” said park ranger Kirby Shedlowski, who is on loan from Fort McHenry in Baltimore. “By having volunteers out on the beaches talking to the public it’s allowing that stream of information to get out.”

The volunteers also can serve as a sounding board for visitors who are frustrated or angry about the spill and keep them from distracting BP clean up crews, Shedlowski said. She told them, though, that they must keep their opinions to themselves.

Finally, the program is a response to the pent up frustration that Gunnoe and others have experienced about being shut out of the recovery effort.

“This is giving them an outlet, for them to feel like they are doing something, talking to the public, which is very important,” said Sarah Codde, another ranger on temporary duty from Point Reyes National Seashore, Calif.

Gunnoe said she’s still frustrated she can’t do more to protect what she considers her home.

“What are they going to do if I show up with a scooper and plastic bags or a bucket to put this in?” she asked. “They need to deal with people like me and not turn us away.”