Some members of Kenner Calvary Baptist Church in Metairie, La., used to make a hearty living along the Gulf of Mexico coast selling homemade gumbo and fried fish to tourists, making beds at once-bustling hotels and washing dishes at teeming restaurants. In turn, they made healthy donations at church on Sunday.
But then their way of living was wiped out when the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil-drilling rig spewed untold amounts of oil into the Gulf and along the coasts of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi exactly one year ago, causing 11 deaths and countless personal injury in one of the world's largest environmental catastrophes.
The oil company BP, which took responsibility for cleaning up the disaster, set up a $20 billion spill-recovery fund to help business owners and workers recover losses. But claimants are complaining that the agency charged by the Obama administration and BP with disseminating payouts — the Gulf Coast Claims Facility — has been slow to pay, which has impeded recovery, dramatically impacting their quality of life.
Now, instead of tithing, once-proud members of Kenner Calvary Baptist Church have been forced to extend their hands for donations to help pay the rent and utility bills and to put food on the table, according to the pastor, the Rev. James E. Turner. The economy of Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans, relies heavily on the fishing and seafood industries.
The problem has gotten so bad that Turner, activist Art Rocker and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference held a sleepover outside BP's offices last month (March 16 and 17) in Houma, La., to protest the payment process. The event drew about two dozen protesters, including members of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association. The group said that more than 15,000 claims — many from poor people and small, minority area businesses — have gone unpaid.
"It's causing people a lot of stress," Turner told The Root. "We're providing them with financial assistance and legal assistance with claims processing, but I'm outdone with the way it's being handled. There is no rhyme or reason to who is being paid, which amounts to no one."
He is not alone in his concern. Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange and other local officials are concerned, too.
In a pointed letter to Kenneth Feinberg, who heads up the GCCF, Strange promises to hold the agency's feet to the fire.
"Quit dragging your feet and stalling the large majority of claims to a point where victims are so desperate that they settle for anything," Strange wrote in the letter dated March 21. "Remember, your job is to compensate the victims — not magnify their problems by playing games with BP's money (to BP's benefit)."
Strange's letter came on the heels of the release of statistics by Feinberg's office in early March announcing that it had processed 57 percent of the 256,000 individual and business final claims, including 99,905 quick payments that require recipients to relinquish their rights to pursue further litigation as a result of the spill.
"I am of the firm belief that Feinberg and the BP claims process is preying on the desperate economic situation of these families with their backs against the wall, and is dangling grossly inadequate 'final' payments in hopes that people will give up their claims for quick cash. This is why these releases that permanently force people to give up rights should be thrown out by the court," Strange said in a prepared statement.
Feinberg responded back in a fiery 21-page letter that his office forwarded to The Root. In the letter dated March 23, he explained that claims were not casually dismissed. In fact, of the 153,076 claims processed since Nov. 23, only 4,013 were denied, and each was accompanied by an explanation of rejection, Feinberg wrote.
"I find it impossible to accept your conclusion that GCCF payments to the citizens of Alabama 'do not amount to much [sic],' " Feinberg wrote. "First, in less than seven months, the GCCF has paid 28,766 Alabama claimants some $688,645,943, not an insignificant amount. Yet, you conclude in your letter that individual payments, on average, are 'suspect and troublesome [sic].' I disagree, and am left to wonder on what basis you draw this serious and damaging conclusion. The GCCF evaluates each claim on its merits and pays or offers each claimant the full amount of their substantiated damages."
The kerfuffle between Strange and Feinberg comes amid ongoing criticism of the GCCF by public officials. In early March, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also rebuked the agency for slow and parsimonious payments of claims, saying that the facility should work more quickly. He added that while it directly affects the people of Gulf Coast, the slow payment of claims has a national impact, too, because it hurts the economy overall.
Meanwhile, Turner said that he plans to keep pushing Feinberg. His congregation of about 300 has fallen off by 50 members since the incident because people are struggling to make ends meet.
"They come to us for help with their basic needs," he said. "And we have to help them because they have nowhere else to go. But who is going to help us?"
Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.