Alumni Spotlight: Charlie Henry

The Right Stuff: Systematic Approaches to Improving Emergency Response 

By: Christine Wendling

LSU Alumnus Charlie Henry has more than 30 years of experience with disaster management in the Gulf of Mexico and currently serves as the director for NOAA's new Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center (DRC). He spent 13 years at LSU as a research associate working for Ed Overton, professor emeritus of environmental sciences. Henry also worked with Nancy Rabalais and many others. One of his first projects, now 30 years ago, was investigating the impacts of toxic oil and gas production water discharge on coastal Louisiana. Concurrently with that research, he was working on developing enhanced methods for forensic fingerprinting of oil in the marine environment.

CHARLIE HENRY"That project was a great opportunity to continue my education and get real-world experience doing applied research and applying science to actually solving environmental problems," Henry said.

Henry has worked on-scene for hundreds of chemical and oil spills, such as Exxon Valdez in 1989, the 1991 Kuwait Oil Fires, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, and the hundreds of oil and chemical spills that resulted from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Having to deal with large-scale crises on a regular basis, Henry has discovered the best approach to emergency response is to remain calm and be methodical.

"What makes a good first responder is one that doesn't panic. I view big complex incidents like a schematic. Then, I can see how all the different parts interrelate with each other and visualize the critical drivers of the situation. I 'divide and conquer,' or isolate all the problems in to less complicated problems that I call boxes and then work my way out of those boxes until I have accomplished my mission," Henry said.

He attributes his systematic approach to emergency response to the education he received at LSU.

"My military electronics background and working with Dr. Ed Overton and the foundation that I got from LSU, provided me with the tools that I now use to solve these problems. LSU provided me a great opportunity to not only continue my education, but more importantly, to do real research and be part of the nationwide research community and work on high-visibility projects," Henry said.