Robert, La. May 11, 2010 -- With a tank full of BP unleaded I left my hotel in Hammond, Louisiana, and drove about 20 minutes up the road to the Unified Area Command in Robert, La. It's the same trip taken each day by workers from BP, contracting firms, Transocean, the Coast Guard, MMS and all the other agencies and companies trying to control the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Along the way, if they're paying attention, they will note a local business with a sign out front that reads: "ACTION WITHOUT VISION IS A NIGHTMARE," though it appears to have been there for a while and is not intended as a message for them.
The command center sits off a sleepy road where the treeline opens to gates bearing large Shell Oil logos. I turned at the seashell gates and pulled up to a guard post. A pleasant man asked to see my ID. I flashed the ABC News badge hanging around my neck. With a smile he waved me past.
The road wound past a fenced-in pond where I assume prospective oil workers learn to be safe while boring holes in the ocean floor in search of oil. Behind the pond was a large crane and a model oil rig, painted Shell yellow. A second guard waved me into a parking lot. It's a campus of buildings for Shell training classes. (Shell made the campus available to cleanup workers and officials at the request of the U.S. Coast Guard, according to the company, which had no involvement in the spill itself).
Inside the Command Area
I walked into the main building, past signs ordering everyone to check in, past the women sitting next to folding tables stacked with papers and checklists, and wandered around. But there's not much to see. A door opened to the "Joint Information Center" room and I could see, for a flash, a hive of activity. But someone had taped pieces of copier paper over every inch of the room's glass walls.
When I ventured closer to where the unified commanding was being done, where response teams were responding and watching live video from the robot subs a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, I ran into another woman at a card table and a security guard.
"Hi. I've just driven from Mobile to Robert and I'm here to get the lay of the land. I'm with ABC News," I said.
She looked mystified.
Oil Spill Headquarters: No Press Allowed?
"You're joking," she laughed.
"Let me see your badge," she said.
I showed her my ABC ID.
"Oh dear. You drove all the way from Mobile? You're not supposed to be here."
Then the very friendly security guard explained that media are not allowed in this building. "They've set up a place for you across the street."
"Great. Can you show me where it is?"
He led me out of the building and directed me to a building across the street. "It's the one with the big Shell logo."
Got Questions? Please Call on the Phone
I wandered in and out of offices, including a classroom with "Drilling/Completion 101" worksheets neatly laid out at each seat, until I finally found what looked like a briefing room, with risers and camera tripods lined up on a podium. But it was being used for a Shell class and was full of students talking.
Finally, while watching Shell students play ping-pong, I called the press center, reached an amiable media liaison and asked him to come out and talk to me.
"Where are you," he asked.
"Right outside your building."
"They let you in? You're not supposed to be here."
He came right out and we talked for a few moments on the condition that this was not a formal interview. We had a pleasant conversation but he made clear that, when we need questions answered, we should call -- not visit. They have briefings once a day but otherwise, this campus is restricted to response workers and students. Everyone, he said, is focused 100 percent on response.
I asked him where to eat in town.
"I have no idea," he said. "I haven't been able to leave here."