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Katie Gavenus, Part 2
Katie Gavenus
This is a continuation of the interview with Katie Gavenus on February 13, 2014 by Alicia Zorzetto in Homer, Alaska. In this second part of a three part interview, Katie discusses her thoughts on the need to involve young people in events after an oil spill, how the trauma suffered by children after the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill differed from the trauma suffered after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and her work on the Children of the Spills oral history project.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2013-26-18_PT.2

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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Involving young people after an oil spill

Differences in trauma between the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

The power of community

More differences between the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Creating the Children of the Spill oral history website

Hope for the future

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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


KATIE GAVENUS: No one thought -- no one in the, you know, in the response effort thought oh, we should -- we should make an opportunity for young people to be involved. In fact, they shut them down over and over and the kids had to do it themselves.


KATIE GAVENUS: You know, they had to make their own opportunity and I think that -- it was really heartening to hear that -- that people were involving the young people in the discussion, you know, they were a part of learning about what had happened down there.

But there's still a long way to go I think in -- in incorporating kids into the efforts to rebuild and reclaim and restore.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Well it sounds like too that, you know, the government in, you know, the Coast Guard offered these like their main role after Alaska started to clean up the oil spill, but the social, you know, social health events or rehabilitation of communities doesn’t really exist at this point.

It is something that has to be done by the communities themselves.

KATIE GAVENUS: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: And whatnot, so -- and this is just one example as far as children go and (inaudible). Very interesting.

KATIE GAVENUS: I do think again, you know, one of the things that came up in interviews here and down there is that there -- there are some really wonderful people on the ground that are doing that work.

That are trying to kind of do the -- do the community resilience piece of it and I think that has become a bigger piece of the puzzle, but like you said it is not --

ALICIA ZORZETTO: It is not policy.

KATIE GAVENUS: It is not policy, yeah, it is not really on the radar.


KATIE GAVENUS: For those that -- the major decision makers. It's kind of on a ground level basis and it is people who, you know, in the gulf it is people who have worked on disasters elsewhere and, you know, move to a community and live there for ten years and just provide their expertise.

That’s, you know, that’s what I saw a lot down there which is really incredible but happens when those people can’t move. What happens when the next one occurs and they're still in a different community --


ALICIA ZORZETTO: What if there is no funding here and whatnot, yeah.

I wanted to ask you as well, do you see a difference as far as the trauma between both Exxon Valdez and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill or were they very similar as far as the children being impacted?

KATIE GAVENUS: No, it's really interesting. I think, you know, again I should note that this is all just kind of my first impressions of it.

There's -- there's been some -- I've been working with a couple researchers that have been doing some initial kind of qualitative analysis, but we have -- we have no major results yet so it's all just kind of the sense I got when I was down there.

There are a couple of things that were different in the gulf. One is that these communities have been through so many disasters and traumas before.


KATIE GAVENUS: Particularly with hurricanes and a lot of them were still really reeling from Katrina and the oil spill in some ways was not -- it was not at the forefront of the issues they were dealing with.

So that was a piece of it that it was just a compounded trauma. A lot of the communities, you know, one thing that was expressed was that it was very different than a natural disaster though.

And the response was very different, you know. When a hurricane comes through once the hurricane is gone. You clean up.

You rebuild. You can physically, you know, cut things and lift things and move them off, you know, get them out of the streets. Get them out of your yard and things look better again.

With an oil spill, you can’t do that and, you know, a lot of the negative impacts are kind of invisible.

You can’t just clean them up. You can’t even really see them. But they’re there.

And so that was one difference is that there is this -- this past experience with trauma, but at the same time in some ways that was helpful and in some ways I think it caused a lot of frustration because it couldn’t be responded to in the same way and a lot of people tried to and then when they couldn’t it felt like a failure not being able to rebuild and restore as quickly.

The geography is different there. So, you know, they have these really -- really narrow kind of bayous or spits -- spits of land that extend out into marsh and eventually into the -- the open ocean into the gulf and so I noticed that you travel kind of down the bayou.

When you spoke with kids there is a significant, you know, it was just gradient of their knowledge of the oil spill and their knowledge of its effects on their community.

I talked to kids and some of thecommunities that were up the bayou is what they call it -- the up the bayou communities and at first no one would even really raise their hand, you know, when I asked does anyone -- was anyone affected by the oil spill.

No hands would go up in the classroom or in the -- wherever I was and -- but once we started talking about it by the end of the, you know, the hour or two that I was with them I never did an exit poll, but if I had I think at least half of them would have raised their hand.

They all -- they all had told stories about how they were affected. How they couldn’t eat the seafood that they wanted to eat anymore.

How they had tried to go out sport fishing with their, you know, with their family that they do every summer and they couldn’t do that or, you know, more direct impacts to the -- to fishing families and to shrimping and oyster families that are located a little bit up the bayou but go down to do that sort of work.

And health impacts too, but the communities that were right there in the thick of it those kids -- those kids recognized it right away and they recognized that they had been affected and in some way they think some of them felt almost like they needed to say they had been affected even if they weren’t.

So there was a really interesting -- I mean obviously they were affected, but there was some kids where you listened to their stories and it changed a lot as they heard classmates’ stories and they kind of rammed up the level of, you know, until it got to the point of ridiculous where they, you know, said that they had fallen into a patch of oil in their swimming pool sort of thing.

But I thought that was really interesting. The other so and that wasn’t I saw in Alaska. I saw differences between the communities in terms of what types of affects there were.

But every community I visited, you know, was the people that I talked with were very ready to say yes, we were affected.


KATIE GAVENUS: A lot of times the -- the young people the people were kids at the time said well, you know, would start with well I really wasn’t affected, but my parents were and then by the end of the conversation again we got to that point and it was like oh, yeah, I guess I was. I guess I was affected.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: I wonder if that had something to do with the timing of you interviewing Exxon Valdez versus Deepwater.


ALICIA ZORZETTO: And the only reason I think of that is because I think of Dr. Picou and his spirit of peer listening. I’m, you know, with Exxon it has been in place for a long time whereas I mean he has done a fair bit of work in the gulf as well, but it is still new there.


ALICIA ZORZETTO: But this idea of -- of, you know, training someone to not -- to listen to someone else’s pain, rather than listen and then inflate their own --


ALICIA ZORZETTO: To be like you think yours is bad --


ALICIA ZORZETTO: Mine is even worse, right. KATIE GAVENUS: Uh-huh.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: So I wonder if that might have had something to do with it. I don’t know you --

KATIE GAVENUS: Yeah. I think, you know, there is a lot of factors in play. I think that program might have had something to do with that. I also think that just the time scale.


KATIE GAVENUS: You know talking to someone 20 years later is very different than talking to them two years later and talking to a 30 year old is very different than talking to a six or 12 or 18 year old.

And I think that reflection time in Alaska was actually really important. I don’t think I -- I don’t think I would have -- I think the stories I would have heard would have been very different if it had even been 10 years after the spill.


KATIE GAVENUS: Instead of 22, 23. I did this a couple years ago.


KATIE GAVENUS: But one of the really interesting things that did come up in Alaska and down in the gulf and -- was just the power of community.

And how, you know, over and over again I heard things about, you know, all this community we really came together and that was -- that was kind of when I asked what helped people to get through the oil spill up here that is what I heard a lot was the community and the social sort of net.

And that it was really tough because those communities were under a lot of stress.

But being amongst people who were experiencing the same pain and who were trying to -- to restore the ecosystems but also rebuild their lives and move forward was a really positive thing and that the communities really worked to -- to stay positive.

And that's something that I heard from a lot of people in Alaska I was a little surprised from cause I think there's this perception that when there is a technological disaster like an oil spill that it tears communities apart and that, you know, the litigation process and the cleanup contracts that really -- really kind of eroded the community structure.

And I do think that communities were under a lot of strain whether it be the larger community say the city of Homer or the smaller kind of fishing family group within that community or even down to family units.

But I think there is a lot of credit that needs to be given there that even in the face of that strain people really did look out for each other and try to make the best of it.

And despite the -- the personal and individual sort of troubles and struggles that everyone's going through and then just on that larger level people really did take care of each other.

And that was -- I heard that a lot here and I heard that a lot down in the gulf too and I think that, you know, one of the really I guess fortuitous things about these two spills is that they did happen in areas where it was small communities where people had been looking out for each other for generation, you know.

Someone in Homer gets in a car accident and we have a spaghetti feed, you know, like that’s just what we do and I can’t imagine what would happen in a big city if something like this happened where there wasn’t that sort of social network.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Hum. That’s a good -- I never even thought of --

KATIE GAVENUS: And it's -- I mean at the same time it's horrible that it happens in these communities because they’re also there is kind of more to lose, in that sense.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Well they are relying upon, you know, apparently the land --


ALICIA ZORZETTO: A fair bit more than --


ALICIA ZORZETTO: You know, that city where there is a lot more --

KATIE GAVENUS: Yeah, you know, that is a big piece of -- of the economy of the subsistence harvest and also just kind of the social -- social and cultural aspects of the community.

Can I add -- I wanna add one more thing --

ALICIA ZORZETTO: I was just gonna ask you --

KATIE GAVENUS: Earlier on and I was thinking of this and I just kind of lost it when you asked the question, but one of the major differences between the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was that human lives were lost in the gulf and, you know, there are -- and it was immediate, you know.


KATIE GAVENUS: They were lost actually before the spill even happened. So there was another layer to that tragedy with that.

And for a lot of kids that I talked to that was a very scary layer because a lot of them -- a lot of their families and friends they do work in the fishing industry, but a lot of them work on the oil rigs too.


KATIE GAVENUS: And so, you know, some of the stories I heard were I think -- I didn’t hear from my dad for three days after it happened and we didn’t know if he was one of the people who had been killed and, you know, for some families -- not the ones I talked to, but for some families that was the case.

That was their brother or father or son and so that, you know, that's just an incredibly hard thing to deal with then so quickly and the media became about the oil spill and became about the economic and environmental impacts and I think it was kind of forgotten that there were -- there were 11 people that died that day too.

So that was a really -- that’s a very different piece of it and, you know, there are those in Alaska who may have had some significant health impacts from it.

And down the road it may have contributed to -- to loss of health and loss of life, but it wasn’t that sort of industrial accident.


KATIE GAVENUS: That could have very easily been prevented and those lives wouldn't have been lost.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Well, thinking you made a good point in the sense that there was this after lives were lost there was -- and perhaps part of this was because the spill just kept going. It took so long. What was it three months?


ALICIA ZORZETTO: Almost three months if not three months to get it -- to get the oil to stop coming out.


ALICIA ZORZETTO: So that might have drawn some attention away from the facts so it is interesting that you said that.

It's even to be involved that’s other layer for these people and not just the ones that lost someone, but the ones are just working --


ALICIA ZORZETTO: In rigs so they carry that I guess like what you’re, you know, things that they carry that fear.



KATIE GAVENUS: And, you know, it also because there's that dual economy down there and it is here too, but it's -- I feel like it is a little more divided, you know.

It’s this portion of the state that is really involved in the oil industry in this portion was involved and the fishing.

You know, down there I talked to a kid who says my dad works two weeks on the rig and then he gets off the rig and he goes out shrimping for two weeks.


KATIE GAVENUS: And so there was no you’re fighting within -- within your head to reconcile so which one's bad here.


KATIE GAVENUS: And which one do we want to protect more and especially with the moratorium on drilling that happened then there was a lot of uncertainty about, you know, are we gonna lose both of our sources of income and will we be able to go out and -- and, you know, develop oil again in these areas.

And, you know, everyone has their own personal place that they come out -- down on that spectrum of kind of what industries are more important to a family and to a community, but down there it is just so closely intertwined that you can’t kind of make that decision for yourself because everyone is involved in both in some way.

And so I think that -- that gray area in some ways made for healthier conversations because it wasn’t a me versus them mentality as much and it wasn’t evil and good.

But at the same time I think on a personal level it's pretty hard to reconcile that and be able to, you know, long term I think it is gonna be -- gonna be better that people did have to kind of grapple with that rather than jumping to these black and white conclusions.

But short term I think it caused a lot of stress and just a lot of confusion.


KATIE GAVENUS: And unknown fact.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Very -- very interesting, Katie. Do you have anything else that you would like to add to this interview? Anything that might be important?

KATIE GAVENUS: Hmm. Let me think for a second.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: If you don’t, that’s okay too.

KATIE GAVENUS: No, I probably do. Is this your last question?

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Yeah, we can, you know, turn off the camera and then if you think of something we can always turn it back on.

KATIE GAVENUS: No, I’m just trying to think, you know, what were kind of the most important things that came out of this?

I think if you know my experience in the gulf and my experience here I was, you know, I cried a lot and I laughed a lot throughout this whole process.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: In creating --

KATIE GAVENUS: In -- yeah.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: -- the Children of the Spill.

KATIE GAVENUS: And creating, yeah, and creating and of -- of hearing those stories and even down there it was amazing when it was framed within the context of, you know, what would you tell someone else who was going through this?

How much people opened up and I think that was -- I was amazed that, you know, kids that were six or ten years old and they would -- they would ask me like what -- what can we do to help?

What can we do to make it better for us or what can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen somewhere else? And so I think that was a really powerful indicator that just kind of -- I don’t know it’s kind of cliché to say the human spirit.

But the, you know, even in the midst of a pretty horrible experience there is a selflessness and there is a wanting to reach out to others and that really came through in the Alaska interviews.

I mean that, you know, I didn’t ask the specific question why did you say you would sit down to an interview --


KATIE GAVENUS: With me, but I think the answer in a large majority of the cases would have been to help -- help other people get through this either in my own community or -- or in other, you know, in other places.

And I was also just -- just amazed by how -- how different everyone's experience was with some of the things that came through that were really about, you know, hope and particularly in Alaska I heard a lot about just making some tough decisions.

And recognizing when a situation is -- is not a positive one and you can’t make a living doing it any more. You can’t live in a community any more and making those changes rather than waiting and waiting and waiting.

Sort of being realistic and that’s a hard thing to hear. But that’s something I heard a lot, especially -- especially in Cordova.

Which is, you know, I think many would agree is one of the communities that was probably hit the hardest economically by it, you know.

Tatitlek and Chenega Bay were hit very -- very deep -- cultural level and a -- and a subsistence level, but Cordova was a community where it just -- it just devastated the economy and so a lot of people did leave.

And, you know, I talked to a lot of young men and women who are fishermen now who said I had to make the decision to, you know, is this a feasible career path and a lot of them went off and got college degrees or technical training in something totally different kind of as a backup plan and came back and are now fishing or there are a lot of people in some of the other communities that have gone into related fields.

Fields like marine science, fisheries management have found a way to stay involved in that kind of marine culture without necessarily being as involved in the fishing culture and that's true here in Homer too.

And it is something that I have seen a lot amongst my classmates and people my age is that there is a lot more of us who are around than some of the other -- the people who graduated before us.

And we are in a whole range of different, you know, different industries, but a lot of the people have been drawn to that sort of marine science and community health aspect of it and I think it's pretty connected and I think it is a pretty amazing thing and that’s something that I hope for -- for the communities in the Gulf of Mexico too.

That if they lose some of these industries and some of these sort of cultural ties to the maritime world I hope that they can kind of find those same sort of transformed but still connected careers with the ocean and with the -- the ecosystem that will sustained them for so long.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: While you were speaking I thought of one other question to ask you so and then we'll end if there is any additions that you would like to (inaudible).

So you mentioned this commonality between like, you know, even you as far as giving up your blankee and like Exxon Valdez and people that you have interviewed saying that they want to help and when you have this idea of hope right?

So carrying this hope for the future.

Is there one thing that's like, glimmering to you that, you know, if there were to be another oil spill in America that you -- something that you hope would be different for that spill versus what has happened for Exxon Valdez and for Deepwater Horizon?

KATIE GAVENUS: Oh, there is a lot of hopes --


ALICIA ZORZETTO: Let’s say top -- you know, you're top couple.

KATIE GAVENUS: You know, I think we talked earlier about sort of having that -- having it a little bit more integrated in the response effort to -- to address some of the social and cultural impacts and just to be at the very least be sensitive to them and so that is one thing.

You know, there are a whole suite of things you could go to -- into and sort of oil spill response and cleanup and that’s not really my area, you know. I wish that it was in and already been so -- the world really, you know, and one of the places where the ecosystems are just -- just already barren I guess.

The other thing that I think I would -- I would hope for is I would kind of hope that the communities are a little bit more prepared for it and it's surprising and I think it is something that is probably on a lot of people’s minds who are dealing with this right now and kind of looking back 25 years.

You know I think about what if a spill happened again -- here even and I think, you know, there is a lot of them -- the technologies are in place now, but I don’t think we’re necessarily really ready for it to happen.

I mean -- no one would ever want it to happen again, but I think if it happened again we’d be sort of surprised by how quickly things fell apart again and so part of that is just sort of maintaining vigilance and not sort of letting involvement in things like the oil spill training and cleanup drills and stuff like that.

You know, keeping involvement in those really strong and not letting this become a back burner issue and not letting -- not letting our guard down.

But I think another piece of it is that again nothing has really been done socially and culturally to prepare for what might happen in the future and to build that community resiliency.

It's been done to kind of recover from it, but I don’t think very many places are taking a proactive approach to -- okay, let's build before it happens.

And let's recognized wherever we are in the world there are -- there are natural disasters. There are technological disasters.

There are, you know, just horrible things that can affect our communities and I think it's -- it's happening on again sort of those individuals within towns and villages are working towards that and there are some pretty amazing people there doing amazing work, but I wish that -- that would be my hope is that more of that happens.

So that we are prepared whatever comes next whether it be an oil spill or a tsunami or, you know, a different type of pollution --

ALICIA ZORZETTO: You mean (inaudible) the whole domestic policy -- I mean -- yeah, I guess policy to kind of coping strategies for - for disasters.

KATIE GAVENUS: Yeah, and just -- just working towards --

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Based on community.

KATIE GAVENUS: Yeah, working towards, yeah, healthier communities and -- communities where we really are working to support each other because I think as a lot of these communities have gotten a little bit bigger that network has been stretched a little bit.

And it -- in some places it is not as strong as it was at the time of the oil spill and up here at least.

And I kind of wonder, you know, how it would be different if it happened again now and even though our technologies are better there are some things that maybe aren’t as strong as they used to be.

And so that, you know, I would hope for us to be stronger than we were before rather than maybe.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Is there anything else?

KATIE GAVENUS: The only other thing I would say and I mentioned this a couple times just -- just how amazing it was to -- to do this and to go into these communities and, you know, particularly in the gulf but up here too.

I -- oftentimes I went into a community knowing no one -- knowing one or two people not knowing what I was gonna do, who I was gonna talk to and I was welcomed with just open arms and it really -- for me it was a really transformative experience.

And it was -- it was kind of a healing process and I didn’t think I needed to heal.

But I did and I never really dealt with all that stuff from my childhood that had happened with Exxon and I didn’t think that it was a big deal for me.

But it turns out it kind of was even though the affects -- direct effects on me and my family were pretty small and so just being able to interact with these people and, you know, I -- in Kodiak I had halibut, you know.

A family invited me over for dinner and in Cordova my tent was leaking and people helped me, you know, people took me into their home when a gale blew through and broke the stakes on my tent.

And, you know, in -- in the gulf I went down there and I honestly like they were communities I went to, I didn’t know where I was going to stay. There wasn’t a hotel there, you know and I -- one place I rented out a trailer in a church parking lot.

Another place, you know, I was -- stayed on people’s couches.