Christine Watson, of Destin, Fla., has to come up with $1,900 this week or she’ll be evicted from her apartment. She also just received a notice that her electricity will be shut off if she doesn’t pay up soon. So Watson did something she says she’s never done before. “I’ll be honest. I gave them a bum check. I gave them a check and figured if it’s going to bounce, it’s going to bounce,” she says.
Watson lost her job as manager of a natural health and fitness store in June, when, in the aftermath of the oil spill, the store’s owner let all of the employees go. As tarballs started popping up on the nearby beach, tourism in the area dropped sharply. Profits at the store — which offers foot baths, saunas and body wraps for beach-goers — dropped in turn.
It’s been a rough year for Watson and her family. She and her husband lost everything when their construction company failed last year. Unable to pay the bills, they fell behind on their mortgage and their house went into foreclosure. Her husband hasn’t been able to find a job, becoming part of the nearly one in eight Floridians who are unemployed.
A nutrition counselor, Watson found work at the natural health and fitness store. While she says it wasn’t easy, the Watson family was able to get by on the money she pulled in from working there. But now, nearly five months after the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that led to the country’s biggest oil spill, Watson finds herself down and out again.
“We were very financially stable,” Watson says. “Now everything has changed. We have spent everything we have. I’m 46 and I’ve never been through anything like this.”
For Watson and the thousands of other people who have suffered significant financial losses because of the gulf oil spill, help isn’t coming fast enough. Watson filed a claim with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility on Aug. 23, the first-day control of the claims process was transferred from BP to Kenneth Feinberg, an independent administrator chosen by President Obama. Now, three weeks later, Watson says she still has not been given a clear indication of when she’ll receive an emergency payment to help her pay the bills.
In a series of interviews with The Washington Independent, victims of the gulf spill say they are frustrated by slow progress at the claims facility. Their stories show the severe toll the losses have taken on the daily lives of gulf residents, many of whom were just beginning to recover from the country’s sharpest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
As of Sept. 11, more than 56,000 claims have been filed with the claims facility. Of those claims, 13,641 — roughly 24 percent — have been paid. That means that more than three-quarters of the claims, many of which were filed in the first days the facility opened its doors, are still being processed.
In a round of interviews and public appearances before taking over as claims administrator, Feinberg — a Washington lawyer who has made a career dealing with massive claims processes — said he would work to pay claims as quickly as possible. An Aug. 23 “protocol” for emergency payments said that all individual claims would be “evaluated preliminarily” within 24 hours “of receipt of the completed form and supporting documentation.” Then, if eligible, payment will be authorized within another 24 hours. Business claims would be evaluated within seven days.
This week, the facility acknowledged that the 48-hour time frame may be too ambitious. A note on the facility website says much of the documentation submitted will require more time to review. “Thus, the announced 48-hour claim determination rule for individual claims and the 7-day claim determination rule for business claims will be extended as necessary and appropriate,” the note says.
The acknowledgment came after claimants raised concerns about the small number of claims that had been approved and accused Feinberg of failing to follow through on his 48-hour promise. Though Feinberg’s office said last week that nearly all the claims that had not been paid lacked documentation, Feinberg spokeswoman Amy Weiss told The Washington Independent Friday that 3,000 claims have no documentation at all and 2,000 to 2,500 have some documentation, but need more. The rest (more than 35,000 claims) are still being processed.
Weiss said “the GCCF Team is working 24 hours a day, seven days a week” to process claims and has hired additional staff, bringing to 300 the total number of people working to process claims.
Under the process Feinberg has set up, claimants have until Nov. 23 to file for emergency payments to cover one to six months of losses. After Thanksgiving, victims of the spill have until 2013 to file a final claim. If they accept the claim, they must sign a document forfeiting their right to sue BP.
Kay Hasting, of Gulf Shore, Ala., says she might have to quit her job managing beach-front properties because people keep canceling their trips to the Gulf Coast. Every single reservation for June and July except one was canceled because oil washed up on the shore near her rentals. Like many claimants, Hasting filed an individual claim for her estimated losses ($18,000 for the summer) on the first day the claims facility opened.
Since filing her claim, Hasting has called the facility daily to get updates. But the facility says her claim is still pending. “Nothing has happened other than I’ve been told it’s under review,” she says. “Everybody tells you the same thing. They are reading from a script. They can’t tell you how long it’ll take. You can’t talk to any person about any specifics. All you can hear when you call are people in the background telling people, ‘I’m sorry.’”
Hasting says she is desperate to get paid as quickly as possible. Her phone and Internet service are being cut off. She cannot afford to fix her air conditioner. Her rent is three months late. Her auto insurance has run out. The storage company holding her extra possessions has put a lock on her unit until she can make her missed payments. Worst of all, she says, she couldn’t afford to fly her son home for his grandfather’s funeral in Tennessee last week. “We just didn’t have the money,” she says.
“My life is on hold,” she says. “I can’t do anything.”
Other interviews with claimants paint a similar picture of frustration and desperation. A woman in Florida, who asked not to be named because she fears it might impact her claim, sent an email to the claims facility begging for consideration of her claim to be expedited. According to the email, which was obtained by The Washington Independent:
My claim status says my claim is being reviewed, yet no one can tell me when or what stage it is in. If there are 45,000 claims in this stage am I number 15 or 41,000 in the line?
My car was repossessed a week ago Friday and I only have until this coming Saturday (September 18, 2010) to get it back before it goes to auction. There is no way I can purchase another car now that I’m making $8.00 an hour. …
September is the month we should have been able to take a break from having worked the summer months, not struggling to make ends meet, having your car repossessed and being on food stamps.
The claims facility, in an email response, said:
Right now, we regret that we can only tell you what you likely already know, which is that your claim remains under review. Please know that we are diligently working to process all claims that come in, and that payments on claims are continually being sent. We apologize for any delays you are experiencing. Please understand that we are currently handling a large volume of claims, and are working around the clock to quickly resolve your claim and those of similarly situated individuals.
A man who sells timeshares in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., says he’s losing an average of $9,000 a month because people don’t want to buy timeshares on the beach anymore. “We were fortunate,” he says. “We actually had emergency savings account to fall back on. But it’s pretty much depleted now. We’ve been living month to month.”
The man, who also asked not to be named, says he has been getting conflicting information from the facility about his claim. Some people at the facility have said that he doesn’t have the proper documentation and others have said he has all the documentation he needs. “I just have no idea,” he says.
The man also says he is unsure if he should apply for payment through a separate pool of money Feinberg has set aside for real estate agents because, as a timeshare salesman, he is not technically a real estate agent.
Like many claimants interviewed by The Washington Independent, the man is concerned he will be depicted as somebody who is looking for a handout from BP. “I don’t want to come off like I’m sitting here begging for a handout. It seems like a lot of people asking for claims now are being painted as welfare recipients and that really gets my goat,” he says. “If a hurricane hits here, OK, we’ll pick up and dust off. But this is something that we didn’t expect and we shouldn’t have to deal with.”