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‘Under review’ and in limbo


The Gulf oil spill is continuing to devastate Gulf Coast industries, like the boating industry. (Marianna Day Massey/ZUMA Press)

For more than seven weeks, Jeannie Mathis has been waiting for a check from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, the independent entity charged with doling out the money BP set aside to compensate victims of the Gulf oil spill. And for seven weeks, her claim has been “under review.”

[Economy1] Shortly after the oil spill, sales at her Steinhatchee, Fla., nursery, which specializes in selling palm trees to beach-front hotels, plummeted more than 50 percent. Tourists, spooked by the prospect of oil-soaked beaches, stayed away from Florida’s Gulf coast. In turn, hotel owners and other tourism-driven businesses lost money and sacrifices had to be made. As it turns out, one of the first things businesses cut was their landscaping budget.

“The oil spill hit at the heart of our nursery season,” Mathis said. “My clients in Panama City Beach bought eight loads of trees before the spill and they haven’t bought a single load of trees since the spill. They all said things slowed way down because of the oil spill.”

Mathis, who filed more than 300 pages of documentation to prove her claim, says she’s struggling to pay her bills and she’s over-drafted on her bank account. “I’ve had the same bank account since I was 18 years old,” she said. “I shouldn’t be in overdraft. I should have money in the bank.”

Like many others in the Gulf, Mathis says she’s been able to get very little information about her claim. The GCCF has noted no problems with her claim, nor has it asked for more documentation. Every time she calls to check on the status of her claim, she gets the same vague response: “It’s under review.”

“I know that the priorities have to go to the fisherman,” Mathis says. “They have to have help first because they live from one paycheck to the next. But at some point, you have to get to the other people.”

As of Oct. 16, there were more than 48,700 claims marked “under review” by the GCCF, according to the latest statistics. Kenneth Feinberg, the independent administrator of the oil spill claims process, has said that the majority of these claims have recently been filed and are being processed, pushing back against suggestions that people have been waiting more than a month for their claims to be reviewed.

But interviews conducted by The Washington Independent with claimants — some who spoke on the record and some who asked not to be named — indicate that at least some claims have been lingering since late August, when Feinberg took over as claims administrator, without a response from the GCCF. They also show that the lines of communication between the claimant and the GCCF are often nonexistent, leaving oil spill victims with little information about when they will receive a decision on their claim.

Amy Weiss, a spokeswoman for Feinberg, said about 8,000 of the 48,700 claims still under review were filed before Oct. 1. “There are only a small number of problematic claims going back to August or September,” she said. Weiss also said the GCCF has not assigned extra staff members to look into claims that have been under review for weeks, though Feinberg has said he is considering hiring staff to answer Gulf residents’ claims questions.

Debra DeShong Reed, another Feinberg spokeswoman, added that most claims filed in August and September that are still under review lack documentation, may be fraudulent or are being reconsidered based on new, less stringent rules Feinberg established in recent weeks.

Zade Marcrie, who owns a fishing charter business in Little Sarasota Bay, Fla., says his claim has been under review since Aug. 28. Marcrie, whose business lost money as spill-wary tourists canceled plans for fishing trips, says his interactions with the GCCF were often confusing and counterproductive.

Unclear about Feinberg’s claims protocol, Marcrie initially filed for a final, rather than an emergency claim. (Oil spill victims have until Thanksgiving to file for interim, emergency payments. After Thanksgiving, they have until November 2012 to file for final payments. If claimants accept a final payment, they must agree not to sue BP for further damages.)

It took three weeks to change his claim from a final to an emergency payment. During that time, Marcrie received conflicting information from GCCF staff. Even after reapplying for an emergency payment and being told the GCCF has received his updated paperwork, Marcrie says he still got letters indicating he hadn’t yet filled out the necessary forms.

“It’s obvious the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” Marcrie said in an email. “But when you consider how much better off myself and untold numbers of others would be had our claims been handled within a week it’s actually pathetic.”

Darlene Gay-Allen, of Mobile, Ala., is about to get evicted from her home. She hasn’t been able to pay the rent since she lost her job as an administrative assistant at a subcontractor that was working with BP to clean up the oil spilled across the Gulf. She was also promised work helping to clean up the spill, and later as a claims administrator at the GCCF. Neither of those jobs panned out, she said, even after she paid for the necessary equipment and a training course.

Gay-Allen’s case is unusual because her losses came as a result of work she was doing to clean up the oil spill. But she says the GCCF has continued to assure her that her claim is under review without giving her specific information about when she can expect a decision.

She filed with the GCCF in late August, days after Feinberg took over the claims process, and says her claim has been under review ever since. “I am to be evicted in a matter of days if I do not come up with the money,” said Gay-Allen, who is surviving on $118 a week in unemployment payments. “I’m 51 years old and I’ve been working since I was 17. I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

Gay-Allen says the GCCF told her that it would expedite her claim because she is facing eviction. But another eviction notice came yesterday, and Gay-Allen says she doesn’t have much time. “I’ve only got a matter days to get out of the house,” she said. “I don’t have the money to move to another place. I don’t have any money to put my stuff in storage.”

Andy (he asked that his last name not be used so as not to jeopardize his claim) lost his job as an oil rig engineer in Louisiana after the Obama administration imposed a temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling. As his savings dwindled (at one point he couldn’t pay rent or afford groceries), he spent days trying to figure out the status of his claim, only to be given mixed messages from GCCF staff.

After being told he was ineligible for to receive payments under the GCCF, Andy applied for relief under a separate compensation fund for rig workers. He was told by staff at the rig workers fund that he is not eligible because he worked as a contractor. The GCCF then told him that the staff was mistaken, and his claim was reinstated as of Sept. 25. Since then, he’s been told, it remains under review, but the status has not yet been officially changed in the GCCF database.

“So whenever I call the GCCF, the first thing they tell me is that on Sept. 16 I was sent a letter informing me that I was ineligible,” he said. “I then tell them to look further in the notes as the claim was reinstated. So after talking to the person for about 15 minutes or so they will then tell me that my claim is under review and they do not know when it will be further reviewed.”

After struggling with the GCCF for more than a month, Andy is considering giving up. He’s moved to Oklahoma City, Okla., where he’s found work on an onshore oil drilling project. And he’s begun to save some money again.

His only other option, he said, is to hire an attorney, which could cost even more money and result in a lengthy court battle.

“I’d almost rather just drop the claim rather than give 40 percent of what they give me to an attorney,” he said.

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