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One Man Takes on — And Funds — Mission to Clean Up Gulf

July 28, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A man who made his money in the construction crane business is now leading and funding a small operation to clean up the Gulf Coast and assist with other disasters around the world. Spencer Michel reports from Buras, Louisiana.

GWEN IFILL: Even as the cleanup continues, plenty of oil can still be found along the shorelines, beaches and marshes of the Gulf.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports from Buras, Louisiana, on one man’s effort to help.

SPENCER MICHELS: Tad Agoglia is on a mission, and it’s to clean up and protect parts of the damaged Gulf on his own.

TAD AGOGLIA, First Response Team: This oil needs to be picked up, and this needs to get done, and it needs to be done immediately, because, as you can see, if the tide is as strong, it will go into all these wetlands. It will destroy the grasses.

SPENCER MICHELS: Agoglia, who runs a non profit called First Response Team, acknowledges there are plenty of others doing their part. Nearly every morning, just past sunup, hundreds of Gulf residents show up at marinas along the coast and board flotillas of small boats.

Thirteen thousand individuals are part of this civilian army, paid by BP to tend to booms that protect the shoreline from oil, among other tasks. The Coast Guard keeps an eye on the workers and the contractors.

JOE ALLEN, U.S. Coast Guard: And we’re trying to protect one of the largest oyster beds in Louisiana. You keep the oil out of here to protect these fishermen’s live — livelihood.

SPENCER MICHELS: Workers also patrol the 637 miles of beaches where oil has washed up, picking up tar balls and larger globs of oil.

MAN: If there’s oil out there, we have got to capture it.

SPENCER MICHELS: BP has created television commercials aimed at convincing Americans that it is doing a thorough and expensive job of repairing the damage.

MAN: Every morning, over 50 spotter planes and helicopters take off and search for the oil, almost 6,000 vessels. We can’t keep all the oil from coming ashore, but I’m going to do everything I can to stop it.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Agoglia, a 34-year-old New York native, believes BP and the companies it has hired need help, and he’s the one to do it.

TAD AGOGLIA: Just put this on your shoulder. Then bring the other one in.

SPENCER MICHELS: First Response Team, which he founded and funded, is designed to help in disasters. He and his seven-person crew and their array of equipment arrived here by barge 41 days after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, before the oil hit the beaches and the official cleanup effort began.

Government and BP officials know he’s here. Sometimes, they work with him and his equipment.

TAD AGOGLIA: When this is secured and we feel like it’s moving comfortably, we can deploy the hovercraft and go do that other task?

MAN: … make that happen.

TAD AGOGLIA: Great. Thank you very much.

MAN: Thank you.


SPENCER MICHELS: But, often, they essentially leave him alone to fight the oil that threatens to destroy the barrier islands south of New Orleans.

MAN: There’s oil underneath that sand.

SPENCER MICHELS: The barrier islands were built decades ago to protect the marshlands and the fishing areas. These islands are home to birds and animals, and they are at risk from heavy storms, and now from oil.

TAD AGOGLIA: A lot of these grasses are beginning to die very quickly. And you can see all the oil mixed in with the root systems. This one has died. There actually is a whole group of dolphins right over here, only 20 feet from where these grasses are full of oil. And that’s heartbreaking, to know how much wildlife is out here.

SPENCER MICHELS: Agoglia is a former seminary student who studied for the priesthood, but quit and got into the construction crane business, where he made a lot of money.

He’s decided to use it to help out when needed. For the past seven years, the team has responded to dozens of natural disasters, including the earthquake in Haiti.

TAD AGOGLIA: The team is very efficient, because we have a staffing that most of them have been to over 30 disasters. And when you have that kind of experience of dealing with tornadoes, floods, windstorms, earthquakes, you begin to really know how to deal with these situations.

SPENCER MICHELS: As for the Gulf disaster:

TAD AGOGLIA: We knew we could help. We knew we could make a difference. We knew something needed to be done immediately, and that’s why we’re here working every day.

TAD AGOGLIA: Just a little more. All right, hold it.

SPENCER MICHELS: Agoglia, who says he’s no longer wealthy, has personally paid for most of First Response’s expenses, which amount to $900,000 a year. Much of the equipment is donated by Terex Equipment Company.

An obvious question is why first responder and Tad Agoglia are needed out here. Why isn’t FEMA or BP or the local parish or the local fire department protecting these barrier islands?

Those groups are, of course, making an effort, but Agoglia says he can do it faster and more efficiently because he specializes in disasters.

TAD AGOGLIA: A local fire department is not often going to have a hovercraft or a crane with a special attachment to disassemble a home in 10 minutes if it’s in the middle of the road. So — and, often times, I find that, when these storms hit the communities, it oftentimes destroys their local resources, so they don’t even have the ability to help themselves.

SPENCER MICHELS: Coast Guard officer Joe Allen sees the value in groups like First Response Team.

JOE ALLEN: My personal feelings is that I’m glad they’re here. You know, all the help we can get, the better.

SPENCER MICHELS: And while it’s rewarding, it takes its toll on Agoglia and his pocketbook.

TAD AGOGLIA: I live in hotels. I live in very cheap hotels most of the time. And that’s my life. And, trust me, it’s not really how I want to live. But, at this point, I don’t have enough money for a home. I had to give that up to fund the work of the First Response Team.

SPENCER MICHELS: Agoglia is used to dealing with life-threatening natural disasters. The Gulf oil crisis is the first of its kind he has attacked. His small team works for low wages and for the satisfaction of doing good.

Twenty-two-year-old Tim Wolkowicz says working with Agoglia has changed his life.

TIM WOLKOWICZ, First Response Team: Before I did this, I was a chef. I painted cars and I painted houses. And it was work. I made money doing it, but there was never any satisfaction. With this job, I get to go all over the country, meet new people, and I get to help people every day.

SPENCER MICHELS: Wolkowicz and Agoglia and the others are here for the long haul. And they think their presence and their approach are making a difference.

TAD AGOGLIA: I mean, it would be great if we have 100 people out here with garbage bags and — you know, and rakes, but you can do the same thing with just five pieces of equipment and five men as you would do with a small army.

SPENCER MICHELS: While the large oil slicks are largely gone, tar balls and oil continue to wash up. So, there’s plenty for the First Response Team to do here, until they head out to their next disaster.