There's little would-be helpers can do

Staff WriterJune 11, 2010 

As oil continues to gush from the ocean floor, the disaster affecting the country's southern shoreline poses a problem for people in the Triangle and elsewhere who want to help. They don't have many options.

After Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, thousands of volunteers rushed to the area to hand out food and water, to help with rescue efforts and to clean up. Not long after the earth stopped moving in Haiti in January, relief groups mobilized teams of doctors to fly to the Caribbean nation and began collecting money and supplies.

With every new photograph of devastated beaches and marine life from the oil spill, more people are moved to contribute, but there are few concrete ways to do so. Traditional disaster-relief agencies are not equipped to scoop oil from beaches. BP says it will pay to fix the mess, so celebrity-filled telethons are not needed to raise money. Some folks have collected human and pet hair to create booms to collect oil, but BP has said it has no plans to use them.

That leaves people protesting on street corners or, in larger numbers, logging their complaints on the Web.

A protest this week on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh organized through the progressive website moveon.org attracted one participant. Two similar protests were organized in Durham, including one at a BP station that drew about 15 people.

Chris Mayfield lived in New Orleans for 20 years and said her first reaction to the oil spill was to travel to the Gulf Coast and help sop up oil. But friends there told her that tramping through the marshes would only worsen the problem. Instead, she joined in the protest at a BP station in Durham and has boycotted the company's gasoline.

"But I don't feel like it's going to have a lot of meaning," said Mayfield, who teaches English at Carrboro High School. "I feel like Shell and Exxon are just as dirty, it's just that BP got caught this time."

Multiple online campaigns have popped up in recent weeks calling for the boycott of BP products. One Facebook group, "Boycott BP," has more than 500,000 followers.

All brands, one pipeline

Most people aren't aware that the gas at Triangle pumps, no matter the brand, arrives in the state via a single pipeline. Additives particular to each brand are added later.

BP is out of the retail business. Gas stations are owned by convenience store chains or independent business people like Jay Libbus, who owns Dolphin's BP in Cary.

Station owners make very little money on gasoline, he said, noting that he charges 6 to 10 cents per gallon over his own cost. After adding in credit card fees, Libbus said, he might earn only a cent or two per gallon. He makes his money on the grocery and convenience items from his store.

Business is down since the spill, he said, but it is impossible to put a number on it. When people don't buy gas, they don't stop inside to pick up coffee or candy bars. That's where a prolonged boycott would hurt the most.

"The effect on the gas station owner is a lot more than on BP itself," said Libbus, who lives just down the road from his station.

In uncertain environments, people want to do what they can to take back control, said Gavan Fitzsimons, a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke University. For shoppers who boycott BP, he said, "it's probably an illusory sense of control, but at the end of the day you feel better for doing something."

A BP boycott might not have much short-term impact on the corporation's business, but boycotts stick in the consciousness longer than other forms of protest, Fitzsimons said. He still remembers that in the 1970s, his mother joined a boycott of Nestle products to protest the company's infant-formula business.

"If I were BP, that's what I would really be worried about," he said.

A different disaster

The BP spill is a different kind of disaster than an earthquake or hurricane, and requires a different kind of response, said Gaylon Moss, disaster relief director for N.C. Baptist Men. The group sent volunteers to the Gulf after Katrina but hasn't this time.

N.C. Baptist Men could provide sleeper and shower units, but hotels are open in the affected areas. Emergency water rations are not needed. The tourist and fishing industries in Alabama and Florida are hurting, but "we can't hand out jobs," Moss said.

Teams could theoretically help clean beaches, but the oil is hazardous waste. Disaster groups would need special training and equipment. BP has hired out-of-work fishermen to work on the cleanup; volunteers shouldn't take jobs from people who need them, Moss said.

Disaster-relief groups respond when disasters areover. There has been some chatter in the disaster-relief community about what can be done to help, but concrete plans have not been made.

"It's a slowly developing disaster," Moss said. "We have to watch and wait and analyze and pray."

matt.ehlers@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4889

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