BP oil spill victims: Obama offensive comes too late

The $20 billion escrow account is good news, but efforts to speed up the BP oil spill claims process are behind the curve, Louisiana business owners say.

By MARK GUARINO | Christian Science Monitor
posted June 17, 2010 at 3:06 pm EDT

The promise of $20 billion in recovery money for lives disrupted by the BP oil spill is meant to boost not just the financial health of affected businesses, but possibly the spirits of those who run them.

But to some people making a living in coastal communities along the Gulf of Mexico, Wednesday’s pledge from Washington did not arrive soon enough.

Eight weeks after oil started rushing out of a wrecked wellhead 40 miles off the Louisiana coast, many are already living month-to-month because business has dwindled so dramatically.

There are doubts that whatever money businesses can claim will not arrive fast enough to save local businesses from closing their doors as early as next month.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” says Kirth Thibobeaux of the promised recovery money.

Mr. Thibobeaux, the owner of Jeep Seafood outside Houma, La., says that in a normal season he sells a daily bounty of freshly harvested oysters, crabs and shrimp. But ever since his suppliers were forced to earn new livings working for BP – his shrimper is laying boom and his crabber is cleaning oil-slicked animals – his stock is drained. For now, he is subsiding on the last few days of crawfish season, which started in March and runs though late June. “When that goes we’re in trouble,” he says. He has filed two claims with BP and is waiting for payment on the second.

In 25 years of business, Thibobeaux says Wednesday marked the first day without a customer. “They’re getting worried and scared … whether the seafood has oil on it,” he says, adding, “it irks me to no end. I would never buy seafood that has oil on it.”

President Obama continues to emphasize the local impact of the disaster. In speaking to reporters Wednesday he said he took BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg aside to put the recovery money in context. “This is not just a matter of dollars and cents … a lot of these folks don’t have a cushion,” Mr. Obama said.

To date BP has paid claims totaling $81.3 million. But some say the payments, averaging $5,000, are not enough to survive for long.

At Captain Allen Seafood, a roadside bait shop that also sells fresh seafood, in Houma, La., owner Dee Dupree says she did not watch the president’s Oval Office address Tuesday because, by now, more talk about the oil spill is “depressing.”

She filed a claim with BP but is still waiting on her check. She says she worries that the petition process is being flooded with fraudulent claims, which will clog efforts of legitimate businesses like her own from getting a fair hearing.

Her anger is directed not at BP, but at President Obama for his six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf.

“This is crazy. Yes, this is a catastrophe but you have planes that crash where 200 people die and you don’t stop planes from flying,” she says. She worries that the region will soon empty as people move elsewhere to seek jobs. “Men need to work. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. They’re not coming back. I don’t think [the president] sees the whole picture.”

To shrimper Lance Nacio, the increase in recovery money “sounded good,” but he questions how much is going to filter down to businesses like his own. Federal fishing closures, which to date represent 33.4 percent of Gulf waters, shuttered Anna Marie Seafood, Mr. Nacio’s fishing and wholesale seafood operation in Dulac, La. He is now a temporary BP employee, running a two-person crew on his boat into oil-slicked waters and conducting controlled burns.

He too received $5,000 in recovery money, but says it will not be enough in the long-term.

If I wasn’t working for BP for this job I wouldn’t have any other source of income … They are cutting this one-time check and it’s not enough to sustain livelihoods down here,” he says.

If there was an upside to Wednesday’s announcement of $20 billion in recovery funds, it was that it put an end to the fear that has been circulating since the spill’s early weeks: That BP would be hit so hard by claims and government fines it would be forced to declare bankruptcy.

“That’s one thing we are relieved about in South Louisiana,” he says. With the newly-released money, Nacio says “at least we have something to go to that will be there for us.”

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