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Katie Gavenus, Part 1
Katie Gavenus

Katie Gavenus was interviewed on February 13, 2014 by Alicia Zorzetto in Homer, Alaska. In this first part of a three part interview, Katie discusses her childhood recollection of the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, how the oil spill impacted both her family and her local community, and how she began work on the Children of the Spills oral history project documenting the impact of oil spills on children.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2013-26-18_PT.1

Project: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
Date of Interview: Feb 13, 2014
Narrator(s): Katie Gavenus
Interviewer(s): Alicia Zorzetto
Videographer: Alicia Zorzetto
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Resources Library & Information Services, Alaska State Library, Institute of Museum and Library Services, Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council
Alternate Transcripts
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Early memories of the oil spill

Community impact of the oil spill litigation

Creating an oral history project about the children of the spill

How oil spills affect children

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ALICIA ZORZETTO: Ok. Today is February 13, 2014. My name's Alicia Zorzetto. I'm the Digital Collections Librarian at the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council.

I am here in Homer, Alaska and I am interviewing Katie Gavenus. She has a fair bit of her own experience conducting oral history for children of the spill so and she also was someone who experienced the Exxon Valdez oil spill as a young person.

So, Katie, I am going to kind of let you take over if you wouldn’t mind starting by telling me where you were, how old you were during the spill and we can go from there.

KATIE GAVENUS: Okay. So I was here in Homer when the spill happened and I was two and a half years old, so it is just at the very edge of sort of being conscious of what is going on around you.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Wow. And do you remember much during the early years?

KATIE GAVENUS: I think so. So my sister was born about a month before the oil spill happened and I don’t remember her birth, which she hates to know about.

But I do remember, I think, the oil spill. There are a couple memories that I have and it's a little bit hard since I did grow up with it to know how much of that is kind of maybe a little constructed after the fact from hearing my parents tell stories.

But my versions are different enough from their versions, that I think there is definitely a -- a kernel of memory there.

And so the two things that I really remember are going up to Baycrest which is up on the hill above Homer and looking out and everyone was just looking and looking and looking because it was so long before the oil traveled through the Gulf of Alaska and started to come around into Cook Inlet and it was days and even weeks really that people were sitting here wondering is it gonna get to us and what’s it going do.

And so, you know, I don't -- I was so young I didn’t know exactly what was happening, but I knew that we were looking for something that was dark and scary and might come and change everything.

So that was pretty -- was a pretty scary thing and it was a pretty significant thing, especially for a toddler that didn’t really know what was going on, but could understand that everyone around was really, really anxious and concerned about what was happening.

The other thing that I have a distinct memory of that came a little bit later was the sea otter rehabilitation work that was done here in Homer and I filled in some of the gaps since then, but the -- what is now the middle school and what had just been the high school served as a rehabilitation center because there was a pool there that they had actually covered up to create the gym and then they kind of pulled it back and they were right in that construction phase so they were able to pull back and use that pool to rehabilitate sea otters that had been covered with oil and brought in for cleaning.

And I -- my mom took me to the rehabilitation center because they had put a call out to the community for towels and blankets to keep the sea otters warm because when they have oil on their fur one of the major problems is hypothermia because they can’t stay warm and so I went and I donated my blankee.


KATIE GAVENUS: To -- to the sea otters and you know it is something that probably had very little effect on the sea otter that actually used the blanket, but it had a very major effect on me.

And that was, I think, one of those moments that you look back in your life and you recognize wow, that was a pretty powerful thing for a two and a half year old to experience and going from that sense of sort of waiting helplessly for something bad to come and then feeling like oh, maybe there's something I can do to make this situation better even though I can barely talk or walk there is something I can do.

So that was a pretty empowering and meaningful experience for me.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: So those two experiences you have spent -- actually before I even talk about your own oral history part, but I want to ask you, you said you have a different -- different sense of recollection compared to your parents.


ALICIA ZORZETTO: Do you want to talk a little bit about your parents’ experience or what were they doing even during the oil spill?

KATIE GAVENUS: Yeah. So my dad is a commercial fisherman has been for I don’t know 30 years now I guess. Has been since he came to Homer which was before I was born and my mom is basically a lawyer although it is a little more complicated now. She runs a nonprofit and so, you know, we were very much immersed and still are very immersed in the fishing community here.

That's kind of the -- our adopted family I guess since my parents are far from their families on the East Coast. And so, you know, your Alaskan style aunts and uncles and grandparents were all fishing families and so that was very much the culture that we were in and even though my dad primarily fished at that point in Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay and some in the gulf.

He had --you know he had made trips to Prince William Sound as a tender for a different fishery. So there were really significant affects obviously in the Prince William Sound fisheries and there were -- there is a lot of I guess confusion and unknowns in the other fisheries stretching from Cook Inlet to Kodiak and even throughout Alaska just because, you know, the consumers heard oil Alaska and so it changed dramatically the market for any fish coming out of Alaska

But -- so that was a big piece growing up was primarily my perspective on the oil spill was that of someone whose family had been impacted pretty significantly economically. Not as significantly as someone who fished over in Prince William Sound, but it was still a big deal.

And there was -- I guess there was a lot of kind of black humor and bitterness about it. I don’t think I ever had a conversation until I was in my twenties about the oil spill that didn’t have this sort of -- yeah, a little bit of bitter, a little bit of laughter, but with kind of an ironic twist.

There was never a conversation that happened that was very in-depth about it and there wasn’t ever really a conversation that happened that was particularly uplifting about it, because, you know, especially since the lawsuit dragged on for so long that was kind of what was at the forefront when I was old enough to really be understanding what was going on.

It was that whole legal battle and having a mother who was a lawyer was really interesting because, you know, growing up I always put a lot of faith in the justice system and to see her lose that faith in the justice system because of what was going on in the courts with the lawsuit was really interesting.

And it was definitely a struggle for her and I think that's where -- where my experience with the oil spill as someone who was a kind of sentient being rather the two and a half year old was really within that experience of the lawsuit that just dragged on forever and ever and ever.

But going back to your original question about how my parents’ memories were different. The one thing that I really remember when I went -- when we went to the sea otters and I remember hearing them scream. I very vividly--


KATIE GAVENUS: Yeah, distinctly remember hearing those sea otters that were in the rehabilitation center in the cages. I remember them this horrible, awful heart wrenching sound and my mom says that when we went it was absolutely silent.

Everyone was quiet and so I think, you know, that's one of those places were our memories just don’t line up and I think my little brain understood that there was something really awful going on and it kind of, you know, I don’t really understand the psychology of it, but basically I think I kind of projected my feelings into the formation of that memory and so I thought I wanted to cry so clearly the sea otters were crying sort of thing.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Right. Huh, interesting. And you spoke a little bit about your -- your mother, you know, losing some faith in the litigation. Do you want to maybe talk about what you know of the litigation or how -- not even like, you know, the legal aspect of it.

I actually Scott Sterling was interviewed as well, but how that -- how you saw that impact the community.


ALICIA ZORZETTO: And maybe your parents or I mean, you know, anyone that you feel comfortable talking about?

KATIE GAVENUS: Yeah, so there are a couple different things having to do with the money of it all.

The litigation and also sort of the cleanup contracts that at the time I experienced a little bit of it and then in sort of retrospect I understand a little bit more of how the prospect of that much money, especially when sort of the typical source of income for so many people was really, really uncertain because of the oil spill, how that prospect had some pretty negative influences on the way that people behaved and the way that they treated each other and I think it is really pretty sad actually.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Was it within the communities or between communities?

KATIE GAVENUS: Yeah, so around here what I experienced and what I have heard more about was within the communities and, you know, I’ve heard other people talk about it a lot in Kodiak and Cordova as well and here, you know, I don’t have very many personal experiences with it, but there was definitely a sense that it kind of created some haves and have not’s.

And there was a sense too that the situation with filing to be, I guess plaintiffs in the lawsuit was in some ways unfair because unfair to deckhands I guess.

Because the skipper -- captain of the ship was the one who kind of had to say, you know, these are the people who have worked for me in the past -- these are the people that are going to work for me again and because a lot of the -- the boats around here have the option of, you know, getting deckhands from -- from outside their family or saying oh, my son and daughter are gonna do it.

You know, since it happened in April, no one was officially hired yet for the summer, but it was fairly easy for that sort of fudging of the records to say, oh, yeah, I was gonna have my son and daughter, you know, be a deckhand which then brought more money to that family, but less money to other families that may have actually been potentially hired on that boat.

And so it was a really interesting situation -- again I don’t know much about that piece of it, but it is something that I have heard a few stories and whether or not the -- I don’t want to say whether or not the stories are valid, but whether or not that actually happened and to the extent that it happened there was a perception that it did.

And so even if the process was entirely fair, it -- I don’t think it was transparent enough and I don’t think there was enough communication within the community.

Everyone was on such -- so much really in panic mode for a long time after that, that it was easy just to check boxes and not think necessarily about how that would affect a neighbor or a friend and because everyone was in this really stressed situation it was also easy to interpret things as really, really malicious and -- and, you know, that people were doing it on purpose when it was probably most of it was honest mistakes and, you know, not really taking the time to read the questions.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: That is pretty interesting. I guess what I would say to that is it sounds like regardless of whether it was fair or not there were social consequences --


ALICIA ZORZETTO: That, you know, you even experienced maybe not firsthand, but you saw it within the community.

KATIE GAVENUS: Well yeah and I mean the first bad word I ever had -- heard my father say -- the first really bad word I ever heard him say was in response to some of the things that were going on with the various claims and filing.


KATIE GAVENUS: So and he's a pretty even keel sort of guy so that’s -- that would be my third major memory out of this was wow why is dad so mad.


KATIE GAVENUS: And, you know, it took a long time to kind of put the pieces together and I still don’t know the full story on that sort -- on that specific incident.

But I know that he was not the only one that was angered by that initial process and then the fact that once everyone had kind of gotten over the -- the social tearing and the community, you know, started to come back together and neighbors would -- would interact with each other again and all that then the fact that the litigation just dragged out for years and years and years was really hard.

When I was a kid my parents said there are all sorts of different things that we were going to do with the money from the settlement and, you know, it was gonna be -- it was gonna go for a down payment on the house.

Well, we ended up buying our own house a long time before the settlement came in. Then it was going to go for, you know, it was going to go into a college fund for me.

It was going to go into a college fund for my sister. Well, the settlement finally came through the year before my sister graduated from college.


KATIE GAVENUS: You know, so just that experience and it -- and it got cut so much as well and so it just seemed like every year man it is not happening or oh my goodness it just got decreased again and it wasn’t so much about the money.

It was just -- it’s a little bit more of the principle of the thing I think for a lot of people and --

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Well planning your life.

KATIE GAVENUS: Yeah, no planning your life, but also just that, you know, we were hurt and here and in my family we were hurt a lot less than in other places and to think that for a lot of people that money was really important.


KATIE GAVENUS: But also just that it felt like someone or some company or many were abdicating responsibility. And not taking ownership of the fact that they had created a lot of harm and that was really frustrating.

My uncle who he -- he's not from Alaska. He is from down in Pennsylvania, but he had come up and fished for a couple summers right before the oil spill and was planning to come up again and he got a check.

One check from Exxon during -- after the settlement and it was for zero dollars and zero cents. And I have heard of other people in Alaska as well, you know, that’s like oh, okay, you know, he’s not from here, he’s not one of us.

But I have heard of other people in Homer and throughout Alaska that have also gotten checks for nothing or pennies and, you know, it is like don’t send it.

Give us the forty nine cents you spent on -- on the stamp instead sort of thing. So that just when it finally did go through that really felt a little bit like a slap in the face for a lot of people I think.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: I guess so. And for you I mean this question because you were two and a half years old I guess it's difficult to ask what it was like before or after because you were such -- you grew up --


ALICIA ZORZETTO: In the spill essentially and the long term affects that it caused, but do you see a difference now compared to, you know, was there a time -- you said the community has -- has built itself back up again and whatnot.

Was there a, you know, did the stress lift off you or did you notice it lift off other people at a certain time or is it still kind of there --what's your opinion about that?

KATIE GAVENUS: That’s a really good question and it is one that I have thought about a lot and I don’t really have an answer to you because as you said it is kind of the normal for me.


KATIE GAVENUS: And it is hard to know, you know, being a kid as well I was fairly sheltered from it.

I do think in a lot of ways once -- once the settlement was settled and the first of the checks came and people could finally move past that piece of it I think that was helpful for a lot of people on an individual level.

I think as a community that healing process began a lot sooner, but I think individually being able to put that piece of it behind rather than reading newspaper articles every few months about the newest thing that had happened in the courts was really, really important.

I think it's been a very slow process. I think for a lot of people and a lot of parts of the community there is definitely -- it’s still there and it is not gonna go away.

I don’t think it is ever going to go away, but at the same time there are a lot of people in this community now that didn’t experience it firsthand and whether they have moved here afterwards or whether they’re -- I mean there are a lot of kids that are growing up here that don’t really know much about the oil spill and at the same time their parents or their teachers or their friends lived through it.

And I think that’s a really interesting phenomenon and I think it’s -- it’s important to move on. I think it is absolutely critical to -- to move forward and to begin that healing process and for the people who lived through it, it's almost -- it’s important to begin to sort of forget bits of it, but for the people who didn’t live through it they need to remember.


KATIE GAVENUS: And so it's this really interesting dynamic and I feel like I’m in a pretty lucky place because I lived through it enough.


KATIE GAVENUS: To be able to remember it in a meaningful way, but at the same time I wasn’t in the heat of it at the worst time and so I can -- I feel more comfortable.

And, you know, I can -- I feel like I can speak about it a little more than maybe a lot of people who are still, you know, when they talk about it, it takes them back to a really, really horrible dark experience.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Is that part of the reason that led you to conduct your own oral history for children of the spill?

KATIE GAVENUS: That is -- the sun is kind of in my eyes. I don’t know if there is anything -- I don’t know if there is shade or not.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: You know what. If you move back a little bit --


ALICIA ZORZETTO: And we can see you. Tell me when you’re comfortable.

KATIE GAVENUS: Okay. I’m comfortable. I think that will give us another half hour maybe.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: I know I feel --

KATIE GAVENUS: Don’t know how squinty I like to be.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Okay. So is that -- I should -- I'll repeat my question. So Katie, that -- that acknowledgement that you’re -- that you were in it enough to understand the problems but not so deep into that, you know, it led to long-term trauma.


ALICIA ZORZETTO: Is that kind of what led you to conduct your own oral history project?

KATIE GAVENUS: That’s a piece of it. What really started it all was the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon.


KATIE GAVENUS: Oil spill for me. But that was really the catalyst. I had been thinking for a long time as I grew up I began to realize how much of an impact the oil spill had on me -- both in negative ways but also I work now in environmental education and especially in kind of marine and coastal environmental education.

Teaching kids about our oceans. Teaching kids about our coastline. I recognize, you know, when I wrote job applications oftentimes I was referencing back to my experience living here in Homer and to being so connected with the ocean but also recognizing that there were threats to it and there were things I could do about it.

And that made me really think about those early experiences I had had feeling how precarious our situation -- our connection to the ocean was, but also when my parents took me to give my baby blanket and feeling as a kid that I was empowered and there was a little thing that I could do but it might help a little bit.

So as I began that process I had thought a little bit about I wonder how many other people my age from Homer, from Cordova, from the villages in Prince William Sound and Kodiak and here in Kachemak Bay how it had affected them and their trajectories in life.

And for some people I think it probably had that experience had a pretty profound effect on where they went and what they did.


KATIE GAVENUS: But then I kind of filed that in the back of my head and then when the oil spill happened in the gulf, it became much more urgent and it became much less about a curiosity for other people’s stories and much more about recognizing that here in Alaska we had a wealth of -- of knowledge that might be applicable in the gulf.

And recognizing that, you know, from my experience one of the areas that there isn’t a lot known about is how it affects kids and since I work with kids I was really interested in trying to figure out how kids might be affected in the communities down there and also if there was anything that could be done to help them cope with the trauma and with the disaster.

And so I thought well the best people to talk to about that would be people who were kids in Alaska at the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and so that's what started it, that need to know a little bit more about what the effects on kids were, but also giving people in Alaska -- there is so much of an outpouring from Alaska when the oil spill happened in the gulf.

Everyone -- I think it triggered -- it brought us all back a little bit, but it also was an opportunity to do something again.

And so many people felt helpless after Exxon this was a chance to do something and feel empowered and take what that horrible thing that had had happened here and maybe use it for some good in another place where a horrible thing had happened.

And so the oral history sort of served those dual purposes of -- of learning and being able to apply down there, but also providing potentially a pretty positive and healing experience for people in their twenties and thirties who never really had thought they had much to say about it.

And once I started the project it took on a life of its own. I had no idea how much some people would want to really talk about it and be involved.

There are definitely still a lot of people that don’t want to talk about it and that is completely understandable and I am not trying to push people into talking about it.


KATIE GAVENUS: There were some people who were ready and wanted to talk about it and within the context of helping others I think was a really meaningful way to get that -- those conversations started.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: And you said you wanted to learn how kids are affected by it. So, can I ask you how -- what -- from your experience -- now I know you can only, you know, it’s not -- you haven’t done a massive load of -- of -- of research in, you know, data analysis for this, but you have done a fair bit of, you know, you have -- I guess how can I explain this.

You have done a fair -- a qualitative research --


ALICIA ZORZETTO: Is the way to say. You have done a fair bit in your own right, so from your viewpoint how do you think the oil spill has affected children or oil spills affect children?

KATIE GAVENUS: You know, it’s -- it’s kind of the same way that it affects adults really, except for oftentimes the children don’t really know what’s going on.

And that’s the big difference that I saw is that especially in Alaska there are some really -- in every community there are references to really wonderful people within the community that reached out and -- and tried to work with kids and tried to help them cope.

But overall the -- what I heard from a lot of people is the sense that adults were kind of talking over their heads and, you know, from kids my age to, you know, people who were teenagers at the time.

Everyone knew to a greater or lesser extent that something really significant and with a lot of potential for damage to the community, to the culture, to the economy, to the ecosystems had happened.

But oftentimes there wasn’t -- the kids weren’t involved in the discussion. The kids didn’t really have a chance to learn about what had happened.

Again there were, you know, there were individual teachers and there are individual parents and community resources that really tried to address that need.

But the overall sense and one of the things that people over and over again kind of said was missing a little bit was a well-organized effort just to sit down with the kids and say do you have any questions.

Do you -- do you know what’s going on? What are you worried about? What can we do to help?

And it was interesting because that contrasted a little bit in the gulf and I think part of that is just how our interactions with young people have changed in the past, you know, 25 years because in the gulf a lot of the people that I worked with -- a lot of the kids said that they got some of that.

They got -- they got some opportunities to talk about it. Their parents would -- would -- would explain things to them.

There were, you know, a few things that were done in the schools. I still in many of the schools I visited I was still one of the first people to explain to them kind of the science of what happens in an oil spill.

Which is not my area of expertise at all, but I -- I do know some marine science and I could speak about what happened here.

But for a lot of kids what they said is, you know, you almost talked about it too much because no one talked about things that we could do to help.


KATIE GAVENUS: So in Alaska the impression I got was we wish, you know, we -- the collective kids wished that adults had talked about it more with us.

In the gulf the impression I had was that the kids wished that there was more they could do and that people had provided them with opportunities to feel empowered rather than feeling helpless and feeling like the situation was just horrible and there was nothing that could be done to make it any better.

And, you know, I talked to some -- some teenagers down there who were told, you know, who volunteered over and over again to help with any aspect of the cleanup.

Everything from filing papers to, you know, everything. You know, they understood that they couldn’t be out on the beaches, but they wanted to do something and they were told over and over again no.

So they actually -- they created their own nonprofit organization to raise awareness about what's going on in the gulf with the oil spill and also with the loss of the wetlands down there.


KATIE GAVENUS: And so that was really incredible to hear, but I think it is also a really -- really good example that --