Grand Coteau, Louisiana — What would have happened in 1940 if British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had said: “Our Expeditionary Force and our allies are trapped at Dunkirk and I understand the public desire to cross the Channel to bring them home. Regrettably, our boaters and fishermen are not trained in rescue operations and such an effort would be too dangerous.”

I write this during the 70th anniversary week of the Dunkirk evacuation that saved the lives of more than 338,000 allied soldiers. The crews of at least 700 non-military vessels carried out a major part of that effort.  Although the crisis on our Gulf Coast is not comparable to the British situation in 1940, it is the worst spill in our history.  I am struck by the difference between the British government’s official response in 1940 and of our government’s today.

For the second time in less than five years a unique Louisiana asset – our large fleet of private boaters and professional fishing craft and their crews – is being held in check because government officials contend that what they want to do is too dangerous or that they are not adequately trained.  When Katrina hit the Gulf Coast state officials initially did not permit hundreds of boats and crews lined up on the interstates to enter the city to rescue people in distress or dying because the effort would be too dangerous. Eventually they went in and made a difference. Now with the Deepwater Horizon crisis in its sixth week, our fleet once again sits idle in our ports.  The people most familiar with the coastal waters and wetlands are being told that they lack the training to skim oil and lay protective booms.

How long does it take to provide the training and equipment necessary to make a contribution – a few days or a week?   BP has hundreds of skilled personnel who have neither stopped the flow nor contained the spill in more than a month of trying. Even if the Top Hat procedure works in the next few days, the oil is already here in our wetlands and approaching the mouth of the Mississippi river and the beaches of other states.  Will a private volunteer effort have any impact?  I do not know but I also doubt that the British were certain of the outcome of their rescue attempt 70 years ago.  I am confident that we can mobilize 700 boats and crews. The damage to our coast will only get worse so why not let the local people do what they can?