In this series, the Press-Register is following the experiences of oil spill victims seeking damage claims from BP. The following pieces were reported and written by news staff members:
Jimmy Olive, 65, Satsuma: Owner of Southern Gulf Seafood in Saraland
The Press-Register printed a letter from Olive on July 28 in which he asked for help “convincing customers that the seafood that markets are selling is safe to eat and has no oil.”
History: Olive opened Southern Gulf Seafood, a 1,200-square-foot store at 321 N. Saraland Ave., 18 years ago. He moved there from a location in Eight Mile. Olive took over the company in 1987 from the late Carter Myers, who started it in 1983. Olive and his wife, Barbara, are the only workers at the store. Outside the storefront, there’s a sign that reads: “Our shrimp are from Georgia and South Flor.” Another one states: “Special All American Shrimp Without The Oil.”
Outlook for the business: Olive said that the oil spill cost him about 60 percent of his business this summer. The future, he said, is unclear at best. If business does not pick up in the next six months, or BP does not cover his overhead, Olive believes he would be forced to close. Olive used to open on Mondays, when other seafood markets were closed. It had been one of his busiest days. But as fewer and fewer people bought seafood, “I stood out here all day long for two or three customers. My nerves couldn’t handle it.” He now is open Tuesday through Saturday. “This is a mom-and-pop business,” Olive said, “but if business don’t pick up, I’m going to have to lay Mom off.”
Claims process: He got a claim number from BP in May, but at the time, his business did not have reason to file. People were buying seafood in large quantities because they were afraid that it would be affected by the spill. But by June, he said, sales started plummeting. He said that he needs at least $1,200 a month for his overhead costs in order to stay in business. If the company reimbursed his overhead but “they can’t give me anything to put in my pocket for net profits, I might try to deal with it,” he said. He has yet to receive a claim check, and said of BP, “I don’t know that I trust them too much.” He said he has worked with his personal accountant on filing his claims, and an adjuster told him that they would send a check for 10 percent of his estimated overhead. That check, Olive was told, was meant as an assurance that BP would eventually pay him what he is owed.
BP comment: The company chose not to comment to the Press-Register about this specific claim, but a spokeswoman provided general remarks about BP’s claims efforts and its payments to date.
Eddie Spence, 50, Gulf Shores: Co-owner of eight Shrimp Basket restaurants and The Steamer and Baked Oyster Bar; sole owner of Mikee’s Seafood and Shrimpy’s Mini Golf
The Press-Register reported on June 20 that Spence and business partner David Cahoon canceled plans to open a Shrimp Basket in Mobile, given the uncertainty created by the oil spill. Revenue at their five beach restaurants was down 25 percent to 35 percent in June compared to the same month in 2009. “It appears July will be considerably worse,” he said.
History: Spence opened Top of the Port restaurant in Gulf Shores in 1981, sold that property and opened Mikee’s in 1987. He and Cahoon opened The Shrimp Basket in 1994, eventually expanding to eight locations, including five beach stores. The Steamer and Baked Oyster Bar opened in March behind Souvenir City in Gulf Shores. The business partners had been evaluating properties in Mobile and along the Eastern Shore as possible expansion sites. After the spill was capped, they leased space in the former Naman’s Midtown Market on Old Shell Road in Mobile, with plans to open in October.
Outlook for the business: Mikee’s revenue was down 44 percent in July, to less than $180,000, according to his accountant. If no reimbursement comes from BP, the future looks “scary,” Spence said. He explained that the restaurants bank money in the summer to pay bills for the rest of the year. Still, he said that he’s optimistic. “I think next spring is going to be huge, now that the oil spill is over. I think fall will be good for snowbird rentals because they can get good rates on condos,” he said. “We missed this summer; it’s gone. But we have Labor Day, another concert coming in September and the Shrimp Festival (in Gulf Shores) in October.”
Claims process: Claims have been filed for all restaurants entitled to compensation, he said. Spence’s CPAs have given BP three years of tax returns and worked with Bert Sanders, a Gulf Shores accountant who worked to design a claims template. The accountants also met with BP officials, he said. BP payments for May, plus partial amounts for June and July, helped with cash flow, he said. Spence said that he encouraged all of his employees to file a claim, as he was unsure how many people he would have to lay off. As the summer winds down, he’s got 300 workers, where the number was 400 a year ago. He said BP should reimburse for lost revenue, factor in growth projections, and pay the difference in the cost of seafood. For example, he reported paying $44 for a gallon of oysters prior to the oil spill, and $78 per gallon now. “I have no reason to believe that BP will not take care of it,” he said. “They have been very responsive and easy to get hold of. My experience with them has been good. But they are a little slow to pay.”
Ralph Atkins, 67, Mobile: Owner of Southern Fish & Oyster Co.
The Press-Register reported on July 1 that Atkins had “one fisherman left, and he’s about to go work for BP.”
History: Southern Fish & Oyster, on the dock at Eslava Street in downtown Mobile, has served Mobile since 1934, selling seafood to individuals, restaurants and other seafood resellers. Atkins has worked full time there since 1966. The business has five employees now, compared to 10 before the oil spill.
Outlook for the business: The fishermen are returning, the waters are reopening for fishing, but all is not well. “We haven’t started rebounding yet. Our biggest problem is the mistaken perception that the fish are no good because they’ve got oil in them. We’ve always followed (federal) guidelines. They’re opening the Gulf as time passes, and all the testing has been to the government’s satisfaction. The real problem is that consumers have been hammered by all the negativity of oil everywhere and are now scared to eat anything. But our fish are from proven areas only.”
Claims process: Atkins filed his claim in early June and has gotten one check for $14,000. “The claim is still open and ongoing. Pretty much all the seafood dealers I’ve talked to have gotten roughly $5,000 a month. My losses have been considerably more; business is off 75 percent from what we were doing. The claims people talk nice, they’re friendly, but it takes too long to get anything done. To give you a number, I’ve lost half of my net worth in my checking account since April 20. And they told me (last week) that they needed more documentation, when they’ve already got everything from my tonsils to my shoe size.”
Terry Deaton, 56, Biloxi: Carpenter
The Press-Register reported on July 28 that Deaton had been out of work for three months and struggled to make ends meet during that time. He filed a claim at BP’s Dauphin Island claims center on June 28 and was repeatedly told by BP that more documentation was required.
History: Deaton is an experienced carpenter and has been a member of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters union since 1989.
Outlook for the business: “There’s no work. Nothing is being built.”
Claims process: After weeks of stalling, BP notified Deaton that it had approved his claim at 6:15 p.m. on July 28 — the same day his story appeared in the Press-Register. Deaton said BP gave him two checks for $2,100 each, representing monthly payments for June and July. He since received a third $2,100 check for the month of August. “I had my irons in the fire, but I have no doubt they approved it because of the article in the newspaper,” he said. “I think they’re very sensitive to public perception.” Deaton said he’s grateful for the money but it won’t be enough to sustain him without a job. He’s looking at relocating. “This is where I want to be,” he said, “but realistically it’s just not an option, with everything shut down. So I’m probably looking at moving.” He said the economic consequences of the spill have been particularly hard on the construction industry. “Everybody’s depressed. The guys just aren’t as resilient as after a hurricane, when there’s plenty of work to go around. The financial stress just wears you down. It’s hard to look down the road even four, five years from now and see it bouncing back. What I’m saying is, there’s no hope.”
Jeanne Donald, 59, Bob Donald, 62, Gulf Shores: Owners of Hope’s Cheesecake
The Press-Register reported on July 26 that Hope’s Cheesecake had made only half the number of cheesecakes in June that it sold the same month in 2009, when the store had readied about 500 a week. With her business dependent on tourists as customers, Jeanne Donald said, revenues were slipping so much she had to lay off her chief baker and was working 12-hour days herself to prepare the cheesecakes and key lime pies.
History: The Donalds opened Hope’s Cheesecake after moving from Valdez, Alaska, to Gulf Shores 15 years ago. In Valdez, where they had experienced the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Jeanne Donald had worked for the city of Valdez, and Bob Donald had been a mental health counselor.
Outlook for the business: “Right now,” said Bob Donald, “BP has pretty much met our losses, to date. Basically, with what we’ve got now, we can order supplies and pay our people for a while. It isn’t like we’ll have a lot of money to put in the bank, but we can keep on for a while.” He said that the couple remain concerned about the future and what will “run out.”
Claims process: Bob Donald said the process, at times, seemed “almost comical, a bureaucratic mess.” Around the first of July, he said, his business received a check for $5,000 for May. “They said we’d get an advance for June, but we didn’t get it until July. They said we should be getting the rest soon. Pretty much it was, ‘It’s in the process, check’s in the mail.'” Ultimately, the advance for June, $10,000, came in July. After the Press-Register’s story about Hope’s Cheesecake, Donald said that he was visited by “a liaison for BP” from Orange Beach who “wanted to know if we’d received a check.” Last week he received a payment of about $25,000 for “the balance of June and some of July.” Donald said he feels “satisfaction” after this restitution.
Alan Edwards, Foley: Co-owner of Gulf Coast Aerial Advertising
The Press-Register reported on July 11 that Edwards no longer spotted marine life or many people, during his flights along the Gulf coastline. He saw oil, however.
History: Edwards has co-owned Foley-based Gulf Coast Aerial Advertising for four years, but has worked for the company for more than 20 years, he said. The company flies advertising banners across the Florida Panhandle and Alabama and Mississippi’s coasts.
Outlook for the business: Edwards said the business took losses in June and July, but he didn’t offer exact figures.
Claims process: Edwards’ business submitted a claim, complete with “boatloads” of documents, in May, he said. The claim was processed in June, nearly a month after he submitted his business’ financial statements and tax forms. “We haven’t gotten any money,” he said. Edwards declined to specify the claim amount, but said, “it’s significant, in terms of us trying to maintain employment and pay fuel bills. We’re an expense-heavy business.” He called the claims process arduous. “We’ve been through six different claims people and it’s an absolute mess. It’s dysfunctional and, logistically, they have not had a good job with it. We’ve been through so many claims officers. Whatever the reason for the turnover, they need to get a handle on it.”
John Giannini, 43, Orange Beach: Co-owner of J&M Tackle in Orange Beach
The Press-Register reported on June 27 that Giannini thought Alabama officials had been hasty in closing down fishing in state waters. Closing the waters to even catch-and-release fishing merely drove anglers next door to Florida, he said.
History: Giannini started J&M tackle in 1988, not long after he graduated from high school. A convenience store and tackle shop that started with 2,000 feet of retail space and some diesel pumps out front has grown into a 15,000-square-foot operation with a booming mail-order side business, Giannini said.
Outlook for the business: Giannini said that revenue is off about 40 percent. Expenses have remained more or less flat because the store has avoided layoffs, he said, though the company did not hire its customary summer help. A fairly strong local customer base and clothing sales have kept the summer from being a total disaster, he said. Giannini said that he expects to make up a lot of his lost business next year when fishermen who didn’t have their rods and reels serviced this year come in to get ready for summer fishing trips.
Claims process: Giannini was hesitant to talk about the claims process. He said that he and his brother, who is his partner in the business, have filed claims for losses since May. He declined to say how much BP has paid him thus far, saying he didn’t want to jeopardize future claims. “We have been satisfied with BP and the assistance they’ve given us so far,” he said.
Sheila Hodges, Baby Boomer, Foley: Owner of Meyer Real Estate
The Press-Register reported on July 4 that Hodges was one of a few major real estate leaders who teamed up to tackle the BP oil spill claims process as vacation rental cancellations mounted. At the time, she said, claims adjusters didn’t seem to understand the real estate companies’ business — the summer being a harvest season that makes up for the slower months of the year.
History: Hodges, who became full owner of the firm in the mid-1990s, said she’s helped the company grow for the last 25 years. There are regularly 250 full-time employees, but that shoots up to 700 or 800 people during the peak summer season, she said. There’s also a sales department with up to 50 agents.
Outlook for the business: The first sign of the oil spill eating into Meyer Real Estate’s summer rental business wasn’t the silence of missing customers. The staff was working as hard or harder than normal fielding calls from clients who had reserved a vacation spot and wondered whether the oil could hurt their family plans. Then, they stopped wondering and started canceling. That was in May. “At that point and time, all we have is BP saying, ‘It’s our fault; we’re going to make it right’ — without any definition,” Hodges said.
Claims process: The company filed its first claim with BP in June, company officials said, and has gotten about half of what it has requested since then. The payments have been enough to cover payroll, Hodges said, but her company hasn’t been fully compensated for the major summertime losses. BP has promised to pay in full, eventually, she said. But that assurance must now be passed on to Ken Feinberg’s claims process. She said she believes Alabama’s leaders, from the governor to local mayors, did a good job of getting help for the state, which allowed business owners to focus on their customers and their employees. It remains to be seen whether she’ll be fully compensated in the end, she said. “We do recover,” Hodges said. “We do come out different, and people are resilient. I may not have all the answers today, but I know they’re on the way. There is a future. I just get so upset when I hear my peers talking about not having a future. It’s not true. There is one. … As long as our head is straight, looking up, we’ll always see it.”
Hollie LeJeune, 59, Daphne: Co-owner, Market by the Bay seafood restaurant and shop
The Press-Register reported on July 17 that her business was off 30 percent in June. “We used to think a hurricane was the worst thing that could happen, but I’d take a hurricane over this any day,” LeJeune said at the time. She later spoke with Vice President Joe Biden about the challenges local businesses face during Biden’s tour of a BP staging facility in Theodore.
History: Market by the Bay, 29145 U.S. 98 in Daphne, opened in 2004 and has since expanded to Fairhope. The Daphne location sells high-end seafood on a retail basis and also has a café.
Outlook for the business: “We feel like we’re going to survive, but this next year’s going to be awfully hard. We haven’t seen much rebound, and now we’re going into our slow time of year anyway, so we wouldn’t expect numbers to go up now. Usually, we have 25 on the payroll. We haven’t laid anyone off, but we’ve reduced hours and we didn’t rehire when a couple of people left.”
Claims process: “The process was unbelievably difficult to begin with, but we were finally able to talk to a representative who was very knowledgeable and able to explain the process. We now know what they do to come to a decision, and we feel like it’s a fair formula,” she said. July business was off 50 percent, and LeJeune said that it appeared at first that they wouldn’t be fully compensated, but she now has more confidence in getting a fair settlement.
Patti Link, 50, Orange Beach: General manager of SanRoc Cay, a 55-slip marina, retail and charter fishing business, and Bear Point Marina, which has 75 slips
The Press-Register reported on June 20 that the shopping center was almost fully leased, with 16 stores and four restaurants. When the oil spill hit, the city closed SanRoc Cay’s marina, and tourists were scarce. The spill stopped peak summer shopping and shut down the charter boat business, along with parasail rides, Jet Ski and kayak rentals, and dolphin tours that operated out of SanRoc. “By and large, their last income was in August and September 2009,” she said.
History: Link started working at Bear Point Marina in 2005 and was named general manager of both operations in 2007. SanRoc Cay opened in 1998. It is owned by a Birmingham developer who has yet to file a claim with BP, she said. Boat operators and retailers lease space or slips. Link said that she has not reduced rents, nor has she pursued tenants who are late with payments. “We had BP and the National Guard here to educate tenants on filing claims.” Some of the tenants have received checks from BP, she said, but none over $5,000. And some of the charter boat captains worked in the BP program that gave fishermen work doing oil spill cleanup.
Outlook for the business: “Our season is over,” she said. “Now, people are faced with making it with no income until March 2011. I know people who are losing their houses and their businesses, and some marriages are falling apart. I’m not on the bash-BP bandwagon. They were focused on stopping the leak. Now they need to pay the claims.”
Claims process: Link called it “incredibly frustrating.” She and her husband, Mark, own a boat rental company in Orange Beach and the 11-boat operation was hit hard, she said. “We make 99 percent of our money in June and July.” The couple has filed claims with BP, had to send additional documents and are waiting for payments. Link tried to remain positive. “We have to hope that (claims czar Ken) Feinberg does what he says he’s going to do,” she said. “Every single person (at SanRoc Cay) has expressed concern about how they will survive.”
Billy Parks, 53, lifelong resident of Baldwin County: Owner of Billy’s Seafood
The Press-Register reported on July 17 that Parks’ business was down 75 percent after the spill. “We’re just hoping and praying we’ll be here next year, but it’s just hard to say,” he said at the time. “We need more customers. I don’t mean to be negative; it’s just a reality.”
History: Parks and his family have operated Billy’s Seafood on the dock at the Baldwin County fishing village of Bon Secour for 35 years. Including himself and his wife, there are seven on the payroll. Business continues to struggle despite the recent opening of additional fishing waters.
Outlook for the business: While the well gushed, Parks brought in fresh red snapper from Mexico, scallops from Massachusetts and crabmeat from Alaska. Seafood dealers are anxious for more local seafood to be available and they emphasize that it is being rigorously inspected by several government agencies. He’s on record as saying they’re “not going anywhere” and plan to keep selling seafood as they’ve done for decades.
Claims process: Parks said that he filed his first claim in the last week of July for “a pretty good bit,” though he declined to give specifics. He said he’s glad claimants are required to provide extensive documentation. “It makes everybody do the right thing, so the money will go to people who deserve it, to the right people.” He filed the claim with the help of an attorney and said he was treated fairly in the initial stages of the process.
View full size(Press-Register/G.M. Andrews)Stephen Quinn talks about his business, Blackfyn Customs in Fairhope, on July 26, as he stands beside a boat outfitted with one of his company’s towers. Quinn, 27, has tried to get his custom boats part company up and flying, but the oil spill has spelled its doom.
Stephen Quinn, 27, Fairhope: Owner of Blackfyn Customs
The Press-Register reported on July 29 that Blackfyn’s expected revenue of $300,000 this year had lagged disastrously. “I haven’t sold a single new top” since the spill began, Quinn said of his company, which makes custom aluminum sport-fishing towers for boats.
History: Blackfyn Customs operates in a 6,400-square-foot warehouse on U.S. 98 near Fish River in Baldwin County. With an investment of an estimated $280,000 from his family, Quinn opened Blackfyn in July 2007. His wife, Katie, worked as a canvas maker for the company until Quinn had to lay her off as revenue fell. Quinn’s mother, Wanda, is part-time bookkeeper for the company. In July 2009, Blackfyn had revenue of $90,000, said Quinn, who added that July is typically the company’s biggest month. Revenue this July was $1,500, according to Quinn.
Outlook for the business: “Right now,” said Quinn, “the best-case scenario to stay open in September would be to attract local investors. It doesn’t look like BP is going to do anything. Right now, it’s to stay open, and stay positive. If outside investors back off, then we’ll be forced to close.”
Claims process: Blackfyn, said Quinn, began its claims process in early May. “It’s one, single, ongoing claim,” he said. “We send them our financial reports every month. So far, we’ve dealt with six adjusters. We’ve had some people who’ve seemed helpful but never followed through. ‘Disappointing’ is a good description.” The only check from BP, to date, was $10,400 for the month of May. Quinn said that he has filed for about $55,000 more for the summer, but has received nothing. The day that the Press-Register article on Blackfyn appeared, said Quinn, he was contacted by a BP representative from Hammond, La., who “said they owed us $12,700,” and that the check would be forthcoming. The money has yet to arrive. Quinn said his claim for July is approximately $40,000.
Kathleen Walker-Gordon, 53, Bon Secour: Unemployed
The Press-Register reported on May 30 that Walker-Gordon was a fifth-generation charter fisherwoman who did not want to see her native Orange Beach “destroyed by oil.”
History: Walker-Gordon comes from a family of charter fishermen, she said, but when the oil hit Alabama’s shores, she was unemployed and planned to take a job through a friend to provide housekeeping services for beachfront condos. The job never came through.
Outlook: “My next step is to continue to do what I’m doing now, and that’s look for more work,” Walker-Gordon said. “The money is important to us because we have to have it to survive. But what people have to understand is that God entrusted the Gulf to us to preserve and take care of, and at this point, we’re not preserving it very well. I want to do what I can to preserve what God gave us.”
Claims process: Walker-Gordon filed a claim for what she expected to make providing housekeeping services, about $240 a week. However, she said, “because I did not start that job before the oil hit, it didn’t work. Even with a letter from the people who were getting me the job, saying they planned to put me to work, it didn’t work.” Walker-Gordon said that at one point, a claims officer suggested she move in order to find work. “It hurt me,” she said. “I looked at the man and said, ‘My dad is 76 years old. I’m the oldest of the next generation. I’m not going anywhere.'”
Jimmy Waller, 41, Elberta: Owns a charter fishing boat
The Press-Register joined Waller on his 65-foot fishing boat on June 7, his second day working as part of BP’s Vessels of Opportunity Program. Waller was worried about how he’d keep his business running. He still owes more than $300,000 on his boat and has a family, including a 3-year-old son with cerebral palsy, to support.
History: Waller has worked in the charter fishing business since he was 15. He went into business on his own six years ago. His boat, the “Big Adventure,” is based in Orange Beach.
Outlook for the business: Waller said he’s one of the lucky ones. Last week, he was the only charter fishing captain he knows still under a Vessels of Opportunity contract to go out every day and spot oil. There’s not much oil out there. But when he does see it, he scoops it up with a net and onion bag, deposits it into a plastic garbage can and takes it to a decontamination station. He gets paid $2,000 a day for use of his boat. He and two deck hands make $200 to $300 apiece each day, depending on whether they work eight or 12 hours. “I’ve been fishing every year of my life,” Waller said. “Now, I’m riding around all day long, not able to put a hook in the water, and that has been tearing out my guts.” He estimated that he’s worked more than 60 days, which means he’ll probably break even with what he would have made for 100 days of fishing over the summer season. Still, he said, “Every time my phone rings, I look at my caller ID and think ‘This is it. It’s over.'” Waller said he thinks his business will survive, but that depends on how many days he can keep working for BP, plus future access to fishing waters. He’s already received phone calls from eager anglers wanting to book trips because they’ve heard rumors that fishing may be open in the fall. Waller is anxious to get back out there, but cautioned, “All it takes is one fish to have a toxicity that’s too high, and they’d shut the Gulf down until more tests are done.”
Claims process: Waller said he hasn’t had any problems filing his claims. His claims officer was helpful, and Waller has been getting a monthly check. He would not say specifically how much money he’s getting, just that it’s enough to pay the boat note and to cover insurance and his slip fee.
Belinda Wilkerson, 62, Albert “Coy” Wilkersonon, 51, Bayou La Batre: Shrimpers and oyster workers
The Press-Register reported on May 2 that the Wilkersons attended a meeting in Bayou La Batre concerned about the future of the seafood industry.
History: The couple owns two boats — one for shrimping, the other for oysters. Both have been in the industry their entire lives, or as Belinda puts it, “ever since I been big enough to crawl through the crab wire on the floor.” Their children are grown.
Outlook for the business: “Not too good,” Belinda Wilkerson said. The couple saved the money they earned using their oyster boat in BP’s Vessels of Opportunity program this summer, but they were laid off from that job July 21. They plan to wait for Pass Christian to re-open, where they hope to find oil-free oysters. But they believe work in the seafood industry will be tough to find, and it’s the only trade they know.
Claims process: She said that BP treated the couple well. She estimated that they earned at least $60,000 for the use of the oyster boat, plus they received another $10,000 in claims for that part of the business. They were not paid on the shrimp boat, and it was not used in the Vessels of Opportunity program. Individually, she got $3,400 in claims money, while he was paid $5,000.
Patricia Zirlott, 56, Bayou La Batre: Owner of Zirlott Gulf Products
The Press-Register reported in a June 13 column that Zirlott was worried whether she and her husband, Vic, could continue their way of life. “The uncertainty of it all is the worst thing for us,” she said in June.
History: The couple own Zirlott Gulf Products, which opened in 1988 on Commodore Avenue on Fowl River in Coden. Both Zirlotts are in the sixth generation of families connected to the seafood industry. The company sells Gulf shrimp, crabs, oysters and gourmet seafood entrees, including homemade gumbo.
Outlook for the business: Zirlott reported June sales and revenue off 80 percent from a year ago. Last year, she said, was bad in itself, compared to other years in the business, and “one year there weren’t many shrimp.” “It’s sad that something like the oil spill could have such an effect on your livelihood, and it makes you so uncertain about what the future holds,” she said. “We have tried to be optimistic from the beginning. The more you hear, the more you don’t hear. It just keeps you on edge.”
Claims process: “They just keep asking for more paperwork and more paperwork,” Zirlott said. She has received an initial $5,000 payment, she said, but her husband didn’t get called until Aug. 3 for the BP program that paid out-of-work fishermen to work in spill recovery. “We were hoping to get in on the big money everyone else was making,” she said.