Florida Keys Stories Shared & Lessons Learned from the Gulf Oil Disaster: U.S. Coast Guard Captain Pat DeQuattro

Last month I introduced an NRDC report on the Florida Keys response to the Gulf oil disaster, which compiles a series of interviews with a number of local leaders. Now, I’d like to share their individual stories and the lessons they learned from last summer, beginning with Captain Pat DeQuattro of the U.S. Coast Guard.

During the recent threat to the Keys, DeQuattro, as sector commander, played the role of “the federal on-scene coordinator” within the Keys’ Unified Command. As the Keys nervously anticipated a landfall of oil—which, fortunately, never materialized—DeQuattro was charged with leading exercises and readying the Keys’ contingency plan for quick implementation. 

“A spill of this magnitude was beyond anything that we had planned for,” says DeQuattro. Though the Keys were prepared to respond to a nearby tanker spill, the threat posed by the gushing Deepwater Horizon oil well proved uncharted territory. As a result, one adaptation DeQuattro and others immediately instituted was a “sentry program,” which employed both federal and private boats, as well as aircraft, to scout for oil spreading from the upper Gulf. DeQuattro also oversaw the quick creation of a new “shoreline countermeasures matrix”—a document that recommends how to properly defend various habitats, whether sandy beach, mangrove or coral reef—for the possible arrival of tar balls, a form of weathered oil the Keys had never anticipated.

According to DeQuattro, the genuine threat of the Gulf disaster helped identify gaps like these in the Keys’ plan, and then close them, in part through the coordination of different agencies and facilities. As another example, some staging areas that would have been used to fight the arrival of oil had actually been developed for other uses—important knowledge in the event of a real spill. These lessons from the summer are being incorporated into a revised plan that highlights sensitive areas and how best to protect them. It seems a big scare can really whip a contingency plan into shape.

One of DeQuattro’s biggest challenges was keeping everyone well-informed as questions arose right alongside the summer’s tension. DeQuattro made sure to reach out to the community. “I was fortunate to brief a wide variety of organizations about what we were doing,” says DeQuattro. “Once you are out and sharing information, you’d be surprised at how many people want to hear it.” He hopes to further include locals into the planning for a major oil spill response, as well. Because like the Florida Keys environment itself, the contingency plan to protect it belongs to all.

Hear more directly from Captain Pat DeQuattro in our report and keep an eye out for more stories shared and lessons learned from the leaders of the Florida Keys response to the Deepwater Horizon spill.