Coastal Marine Resource Agents receive national recognition

October 20, 2010

By Jim Hiney

NEW ORLEANS — They were hurricane victims themselves, had no formally defined role in the post-storm response and lacked the financial resources, manpower and authority that governmental agencies had to implement large-scale relief efforts, but a team of Texas Sea Grant Extension (TXSGE) staff knew they had to do something to help their neighbors recover from Hurricane Ike.

For their work, county Coastal Marine Resource Agents (CMA) Terrie Looney, Rhonda Cummins and Julie Massey and Seafood Marketing Specialist Mike Haby received national recognition from their peers. The four have been named winners of the prestigious Assembly of Sea Grant Extension Program Leaders’ Superior Outreach Award. Looney accepted the award on Tuesday night during a banquet at the bi-annual Sea Grant Week meetings here.

The quartet had the clarity of vision and purpose to see through the post-storm chaos and their own Ike-induced hardships to identify four critical needs that were not being addressed by other responders and fill these gaps.

The four critical needs they identified were: reuniting boats found scattered inland with their owners; conducting an economic and environmental impact survey of the oyster and charter boat industries; ensuring the largely Vietnamese-American crab fishing community of Oak Island received much needed government assistance; and restoring the facilities and habitat of Galveston Island State Park.

“I was, and still am, amazed at the amount of work these four people did in a short amount of time following the storm,” said Logan Respess, Texas Sea Grant’s Associate Director and head of TXSGE. “The number of lives they touched and the impacts they made are truly stunning, especially considering that there is no field manual for what they did. They relied on their creativity, perseverance and resourcefulness to successfully do jobs that others either could not or would not tackle. Because of their work, Texas Sea Grant is now seen as an integral player in the state’s hurricane recovery efforts.”

Flood waters floated Galveston County CMA Massey’s home off its foundation, causing major property damage and subjecting her to the same frustrating assistance experience as most of her neighbors.

Calhoun County CMA Cummins’ live-aboard sailboat, her one-time home, was washed from its dock and unceremoniously deposited in an apartment complex parking lot. The boat was too costly to repair. Looney, CMA for Jefferson and Chambers counties, experienced wind damage to her home, downed tree limbs, loss of electricity for almost two weeks and loss of water for four days  — a situation she faced three years earlier following Hurricane Rita.

As rescue crews descended on the Texas Gulf Coast around Galveston to begin large-scale clean-up operations, Looney and Cummins searched for other ways to help residents regain some sense of normal life. They found that no one was addressing the issue of commercial and recreational boats that had blown far inland and now littered the countryside.

“We were driving down the road anyway, so we could get information on vessels we discovered, track the owners through registration numbers and other information, and let them know their boats’ locations. No one else was doing it, so we decided to,” Cummins said.

Looney and Cummins began initial recovery efforts within two days of Ike’s landfall. Their efforts stretched from Galveston County to the Louisiana border, encompassing nearly 800 square miles and reuniting about 30 boats and owners.

Looney also reached out to the 300 residents of Oak Island, a largely Vietnamese community of crab fishermen who faced missing out on significant recovery aid in large part due to a language barrier and a cultural mistrust of government.

Looney worked with federal, state and local organizations to obtain recovery assistance for Oak Island residents, many of whom lost everything in the storm and thus did not have the records to apply for assistance. Looney collaborated with a local church to provide residents with places to shower and wash clothes. She also secured interpreters and arranged transportation for the fishermen to both federal relief centers — where these families could apply for immediate assistance and file for disaster loans —  and to the Texas Workforce Commission office in Beaumont, where they applied for unemployment assistance.

Soon after Ike made landfall, the governor’s office made urgent requests for accurate assessments of hurricane damage to area infrastructure, housing, businesses, forestry, agriculture and fisheries. While good estimates were provided for most of the aforementioned categories, reliable and accurate data were severely limited with respect to damages to the fishing industry.

Within three weeks of Ike’s landfall, Haby, Cummins and Looney began assessing damage to seafood-linked and recreational fishing enterprises across the Galveston Bay and Sabine-Neches areas. They developed and distributed surveys targeting four critical fisheries demographics: people who hold leases within the Galveston Bay System for cultivation of oysters and/or process or distribute oysters nationwide; commercial bay fishermen; seafood dealers and processors; and licensed fishing guides.

Distribution and retrieval of the surveys was made all the more difficult due to lack of passable roads and the lack of power, fuel and mail (and mailboxes), not to mention street signage and address markers. Most surveys were distributed by hand during one-on-one contacts and through various group meetings. What emerged was the first real damage assessment for fisheries conducted by an unbiased third party — which greatly accelerated the industry’s claims process.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) lists Galveston Island State Park as its most profitable state park and one that serves as essential habitat to numerous species in an urbanized environment. Shortly after the storm, TPWD staff estimated that restoring the park’s habitats and facilities to operating condition would take seven to 10 years.

Massey made rehabilitating the park a priority for the Galveston Bay Area Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists, a group she coordinates. She supervised 212 Master Naturalists, who worked 16,960 hours, valued at $353,600, to reopen the park in just six months — six and one-half years ahead of TPWD’s best case scenario.

Looney and Cummins say they wish they could have helped more people, but they also take solace from the nickname they gave themselves — the Starfish Flingers. 

“There is a story about a boy walking along a beach, picking up starfish stranded by the tide and tossing them back into the surf,” said Looney. “A man watching the boy takes him to task for the futility of his efforts, saying, ‘Why are you wasting your time? There are millions of starfish and you can’t possibly make a difference.’ As the boy picks up another starfish and flings it into the surf he replies, ‘It makes a difference to this one.’ Well, we don’t have money to spread around, and we can’t do much for a whole lot of people at once, but maybe we can help this one.”