Public Trying Offbeat Options in Cleaning Up Oil Spill

New Orleans, La. – A month ago, New Orleans was riding a wave of optimism not seen since before Hurricane Katrina hit nearly five years ago. There was a new administration taking over City Hall. Mardi Gras drew huge crowds of visitors. And the New Orleans Saints managed to win the Super Bowl.
But on April 20th, 100 miles to the south in the Gulf of Mexico, an oil rig exploded in the darkness, killing 11 men.
Initially that was the focus of grieving. But as days went by, assurances that the oil itself was capped inside the well gave way to news that it was - in fact -- leaking. And then, it was leaking more than initially believed.
Charles Figley is a Tulane University professor specializing in disaster psychology.

"When this happened - this oil spill happened - I think it caught a lot of us off guard because of the euphoria that hadn't worn off yet. But as we began to recognize it, it's almost like seeing a car wreck happen in slow motion."

"It's more like Apollo 13 in many ways because, yes, we are worrying about the clean-up, but first, we have to stop the oil."

That endeavor was a mile under water, beyond the reach of volunteers eager to do something. So unusual steps began. Animal hair was bundled up and packed into absorbent booms. Again, out of reach of those without access to the fleece.

But people did have access to their own hair - and a movement raced from barber shops and hair salons from New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast to shops nationwide.

At the Aidan Gill for Men barber shop on Magazine Street, clipping are gathered up and kept for volunteers packing booms with hair to absorb the looming oil spill.

Tom Braly of Pass Christian was glad to contribute.

"I think it's great. I think it certainly can't hurt, so every little bit can be certainly a boon to what we're trying to do."

He says the region has had plenty of experience in battling through hard times.

"Since Katrina, everybody has this: Pull together for a crisis - so to speak."

Shop owner Aiden Gill says the concept is catching on.

"People from all over the country are doing it now. I had a friend, actually, call me from New York and he's collecting hair in his shop in New York. So, it's becoming a nationwide event, And it basically connects the people to the situation so it doesn't just become a news story that will come and go."

But will it work? Doug Haywick is a geologist and professor at Southern Alabama University, and he thinks - maybe it will.

"Is it better to actually have hair packed within the boom-type structures -- and, again, my understanding is what they're going to do is take the fleece and the hair, shove it into nylon bags and throw it overboard as a boom. Or would it be better to be actually have it distributed literally where someone will randomly throw it out from a boat over top of the oil much like you'd throw confetti at a wedding, and then scoop it up afterwards...."

"...It would be a good idea for us to actually contemplate as many different strategies as possible, to quantitatively evaluate them. What is the best way of dealing with an oil spill like this? Is hair better than fleece? Is straw better than hair? Is shredded newspaper the best option? Or is setting fire to it the best option?

Professor Figley sees worth in all the offbeat efforts.

"No idea is a bad idea. Obviously they're going to be evaluated and the community will make a decision about how useful they are. But this is The Chinese character for crisis is disaster and opportunity. And for these people a crisis brought out innovation, brought out problem-solving, creativity. And that can't be bad."

For WWNO, I'm Eileen Fleming