Feeling helpless about the Gulf oil spill? Here's what you can - and cannot - do

You're not alone if you're got the feeling that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is another one of those things everybody talks about but nobody seems to do anything about. Perhaps you've even thought about volunteering to help. Again, you're not alone.

"We've been receiving an unprecedented response," said David Willett, deputy communications director for the Sierra Club. "People are calling and saying 'I want to get on a plane and go down there.'"

That's not possible for most of us. In many cases, it wouldn't help if we could. Handling toxic material from the gulf floor or the animals that have come in contact with it requires Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) certification. The Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Service website says explicitly that paid, trained workers, not volunteers will handle oil or oil-contaminated material there.

But while the experts can't seem to turn off the crude tap, the public is clearly trying to help mitigate the mess, despite questions about just how much there is for them to do beyond writing a check to their favorite not-for-profit.

More than 27,000 volunteers have responded, in addition to 37,262 paid personnel, according to Bryan Ferguson, a British Petroleum spokesman at the Deepwater Horizon Response Unified Command.

"Each state has their own venue for folks who want to help," Ferguson said. "They'll ask you what you want to do."

The National Audubon Society is using a Moss Point, Miss., facility to mobilize volunteers and is deploying organizers to four Gulf states.

"The volunteer response to this growing disaster has been amazing," Sean Saville, national field director for the National Audubon Society, said in a statement. "People just want to do something to help, and with the additional coordinating capacity at our new Volunteer Response Center, we can engage volunteers in a positive and timely way and also help set realistic expectations about what volunteer opportunities are available. Volunteers with the right skills and a positive attitude can make a world of difference by being available when and where they're needed."

But as of mid-June, more than 7,000 volunteers registered with, had not been matched with jobs.

The site went inactive on Tuesday, June 15. According to a statement on the site:

"Given that thousands of Coast residents already on the volunteer registries are not being used, it is unlikely that additional volunteers would be called on. It's a frustrating situation. We all want to do something, but after six weeks of effort we've reached the conclusion that there's simply not a significant role for volunteers in the BP spill response."

Kristina Johnson, a Sierra Club spokeswoman, said it is frustrating.

"Even I would like to fly down there and do something," Johnson said. "There just aren't enough opportunities to help."

Still, the club is compiling volunteer names to be used if and when more opportunities materialize, Johnson said. Its website is a comprehensive place to look for volunteer resources and opportunities.

The site cautions that volunteers should not "... attempt disaster cleanups or wildlife rehabilitation without the proper training, as the oil and by-products of oil disasters and response can be hazardous to your health.

"Attempting habitat or wildlife cleanups without proper training may further harm habitats and wildlife, and put you in danger. As of now, British Petroleum controls official cleanup and oiled wildlife efforts."

Johnson noted that although the Sierra Club has demonstrated at BP filling stations, it's not boycotting the company.

"This problem," Johnson said, "is much bigger than British Petroleum."

Sydney Hoffman, director of the Governor's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in Alabama, said her state has logged the names of an estimated 3,000 Alabama volunteers and 4,000 from elsewhere.

"It's fair to say that the volunteer opportunities have not yet caught up with the volunteers," Hoffman said. "It's a catastrophic event. This is going to be an ongoing event.

"We're asking that volunteers not perform activities that bring them into contact with hazardous activities," Hoffman said. "They're performing support activities.

"Long term, I think everyone who want to volunteer will have an opportunity," Hoffman said, adding that she welcomes registration from would-be out-of state volunteers who want to help in Alabama. "I hope that people in Texas don't have to deal with it on their own coastline."

JOHN AUSTIN, 817-390-7874