Gulf Oil Spill: Tracking the Claims — As businesses close, many wait for checks


Since April, the Press-Register has written stories about dozens of oil spill victims, describing their struggles. Now, the newspaper is following the experiences of many of those victims as they pursue damage claims.

Randy Boggs, 45, Elberta

Occupation: A professional fisherman, Boggs and his wife, Susan, have owned Reel Surprise Charters at San Roc Cay in Orange Beach for 11 years.

The Press-Register reported beginning July 21 that Boggs was “scared” the oil spill would kill his business. He had only received three checks, totaling $11,000, as compensation for lost income, which he has estimated at $600,000 since the spill. His boat payments total $12,000 monthly. He said there had been 11 different adjusters under the BP claims process.

Outlook: Boggs said an October red snapper season would mean a good month, barring any hurricanes or bad weather. Customers who couldn’t fish in the spring, due to the oil spill, are already calling to book trips, Boggs said. “I think we’re going to survive this. I’m certainly not ready to file bankruptcy and quit.”

Claims process: Boggs said that he has not yet re-filed with Ken Feinberg’s group. Susan Boggs, who handles the claims applications for the couple, said that she needed to get “some clarity on questions on the application” and planned to file by the end of last week.

Lori Bosarge, 49, Coden

Occupation: Owner of LaBelle Embroidery, a home-based business started in 1989 that has local and national clients. Many of her local clients are involved in boat building or the seafood business.

The Press-Register reported beginning July 12 that Bosarge’s business had been off by 20 percent since the spill. Bosarge reported getting her first check from BP in July, more than two months after filing a claim.

Outlook: Bosarge said business remains slow. “There hasn’t been much change in it at all,” she said.

Claims process: Bosarge said that she’s been waiting since Aug. 25 for a check from Ken Feinberg’s Gulf Coast Claims Facility after being told to expect a check within a week. Her husband, Dennis, works for a company that makes parts for shrimp boats and has his own business making oyster knives. They believed his check would come from the new process within 48 hours. A claims representative recently called Lori Bosarge to say that the couple’s claims are under review.”In my opinion, if BP claims officers approved a legitimate claim, then I don’t see why this Gulf Coast Claims had to go and reinvent it all again, unless there was a red flag,” she said.

Chuck Campbell, 52, Orange Beach and Birmingham

Occupation: Co-owner with wife, Shannon, of Liberty Linen and Janitorial Supply and At Work Uniforms of Orange Beach.

The Press-Register reported on Aug. 29 that the Campbells were seeking a $1.4 million loan to consolidate debt after losing about $250,000 in 2010. Campbell said Tuesday that they hoped to hear soon if the loan will be approved.

Outlook: The couple bought Uniform Rental Service in 1989, changed the name, and it evolved into two companies supplying linens, cleaning supplies and uniforms to Gulf Coast condominiums and other businesses. The companies have 47 employees. Campbell said he hopes customers outside the Alabama Gulf Coast, such as Mississippi casinos, will help the companies continue until the local economy improves. “We are fortunate in that not all of our business is on the coast. If I was a small business here today, I’d probably have to close the doors.”

Claims process: The companies have filed claims totaling $150,000 and got one check for $5,000 from BP. Campbell said company officials plan to carry on claims with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.

Daniel Craven, 53, Gulf Shores

Occupation: Attorney.

The Press-Register reported beginning June 6 that one of Craven’s clients had documented $10,000 worth of condominium rental cancellations due to the spill. He teamed with the law firm of Daniell Upton Perry & Morris in Daphne to represent several hundred clients, most of them condominium owners at the Gulf, in filing claims with BP. The attorneys also plan to file lawsuits on behalf of property owners contending loss of value.

Outlook: He has seen one restaurant owner at the Gulf and a few individuals receive payments since Ken Feinberg took charge of the $20 billion fund set aside by BP PLC. “But,” he added, “if somebody relied on this money to fund operations before the end of the month or pay their mortgage by the end of the month, I think I’d be seeking alternative solutions.”

Claims process: “We re-filed for everybody,” he said, adding that their clients are seeking compensation for rental losses and lost business, and there are boat owner claims. “We’re starting to get some wire transfers and some partial payments.” Feinberg’s staff is trying to handle the claims, Craven said, “but they grossly underestimated the overwhelming nature of their task.” It’s frustrating for claimants, he said. People working on the front lines in the local BP offices were “great,” to work with, he said, but now there is nobody available to answer questions. “I’ve heard that frustration echoed from a lot of people,” he said. “The bottom line, turn in the best paperwork you can and hope for the best and that the right number is going to pop out.”

Cua Thi Huynh, 72, Grand Bay

Occupation: Oyster shucker who came to the United States from Vietnam about 13 years ago to work alongside her daughter in the seafood industry.

The Press-Register reported beginning July 6 that Huynh became unemployed when a seafood processing plant shut down after the spill. She was collecting cans and selling eggs to make ends meet. Aided by a translator, she learned of eligibility for $150 in food stamps for one month, but the Alabama Department of Human Resources reportedly dropped her from the program.

Outlook: Huynh said through Jimmy Trieu, an interpreter contracted with Boat People SOS, that her food stamps have not been reinstated. She continues to collect aluminum cans for sale, but had not collected any on Tuesday because of illness. She is having difficulty paying her bills, including utilities and medications.

Claims process: She has filed two claims and has received two payments of $1,000 each from BP. She said that she has heard nothing from a third claim there. She filed in early August with Ken Feinberg’s Gulf Coast Claims Facility but has yet to receive a payment.

Louis de la Parra, 55, Orange Beach

Occupation: Owner of “Bizarre Bazaar Just Off the Beach” store since 2009, selling T-shirts, souvenirs and other items. He also operates a small online sales business.

The Press-Register reported on July 29 that de la Parra was closing his store due to a lack of tourist trade.

Outlook: De la Parra closed Aug. 5. “It would cost me $15,000 to $20,000 to stay open for the winter, and we don’t have it. We were building up a good, decent little business, but we couldn’t stay open.”

Claims process: De la Parra said that he received $5,000 from BP after filing his initial claim. He said Tuesday that he has since reported about $70,000 in losses but has received no additional benefits. He said that he and his accountant believe that his actual losses are $104,000 in the current tourist season. He will continue to pursue a claim.

Jeanne Donald, 59, and Bob Donald, 62, Gulf Shores

Occupation: The Donalds opened Hope’s Cheesecake after moving from Valdez, Alaska, to Gulf Shores 15 years ago.

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. Jeanne Donald said that she had to lay off her chief baker and was working 12-hour days.

Outlook: “Business is typically slow this time of year,” said Bob Donald, since demand for cheesecake and key lime pie typically falls as the tourist season ends.

Claims process: “I’m not unhappy with the process,” said Bob Donald. “It was slow, but we managed to struggle along.” Prior to Ken Feinberg’s takeover, Donald said, the business got a series of checks, from May through July, for $5,000, $10,000 and about $25,000. His experience with Feinberg’s Gulf Coast Claims Facility has been a positive one. “If you provide what they ask for,” he said, “I haven’t found them particularly difficult to work with.” The Donalds’ petition for emergency funds, he said, resulted in a recent check from Feinberg for about $26,000. “We did get satisfaction,” he said.

Jeff Hardy, 45, Orange Beach

Occupation: Owner of Sand Dollar Shoes and Lifestyles stores, with locations in Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, Foley, Spanish Fort and Jackson, Miss.

The Press-Register reported beginning July 29 that Hardy’s business was off 67 percent in Gulf Shores and 54 percent in Orange Beach. Hardy said they dealt with five separate BP claims managers and mailed a total of 9.5 pounds of paperwork.

Outlook: Hardy said he is negotiating with the landlord to close the Gulf Shores location at Pelican Point.

Claims process: Hardy said early on that the store at The Wharf in Orange Beach had lost between $500,000 and $750,000, and his only compensation had been one check for $5,000. He is now seeking reimbursement from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. “From April 20 through yesterday, we have lost three times more business during the oil spill than we did last year during the great recession,” Hardy said Tuesday. “Now I’m losing vendors because of past-due accounts, and even if I got money, I won’t get back some of them.”

Sheila Hodges, “Baby Boomer,” of Foley

Occupation: Hodges became full owner of Meyer Real Estate in the mid-1990s.

The Press-Register reported beginning July 4 that Hodges was among property managers who teamed up to tackle the BP oil spill claims process as vacation rental cancellations mounted. By mid-August, her firm had received only about half what it requested from BP.

Outlook: Business is “trending upward enough to give all of us some optimism,” Hodges said. “Labor Day was a great crowd, and there’s been a good crowd since then.” Vacation renters have responded well to incentives, such as rate discounts and free concerts at the beach, she said. There are still questions about what rates customers will be willing to pay next year, she said.

Claims process: Hodges said last week that she was working on a claim under the new Feinberg-led process. “I guess it’s frustrating to kind of start over with somebody else,” Hodges said. “I thought he was going to come in and pick up the file and go from there, and instead, he’s recreating the file.” She said BP had promised to pay the remaining half of lost summer revenue, which helps pay for costs in the slower seasons. But it’s unclear whether that assurance will be fulfilled under Feinberg, she said. “We’re still trying to figure out how to file correctly because we feel like there’s no recourse once there’s been a verdict,” she said.

Patti Link, 50, Orange Beach

Occupation: General manager of San Roc Cay, a 55-slip marina, retail and charter fishing business, and Bear Point Marina, which has 75 slips.

The Press-Register reported beginning June 20 that the city closed San Roc Cay’s marina when the spill hit, and tourists were scarce at the shopping center that was almost fully leased with 16 stores and four restaurants. The spill stopped summer shopping and shut down the charter boat business. Link said some tenants got checks from BP, but none over $5,000, and some of the charter boat captains worked for BP in oil spill cleanup.

Outlook: “There’s not much business; it’s the off season,” she said. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism is putting a lot of money in promoting the area, she said, and that will help a great deal. “We’re going to have the beach concerts in October, and we are doing events every weekend at San Roc Cay,” including charter fishing, she said. “We’re hoping the people who chose not to come this summer will come now. We had a really good Labor Day.” San Roc Cay has not lost any tenants since the oil spill, she said. “If they have half a brain, they want to stay here,” she said. “In fact, I have people calling me wanting to move here.”

Claims process: Owners of the development did not file a claim with BP but have filed for loss of income under the new process, she said. The center’s tenants have all re-filed with Feinberg but have yet to get any money, she said.

Erik Nist, 38, Fairhope

Occupation: President and owner of Alabama Beach Vacation Rentals, or, in Gulf Shores.

The Press-Register reported beginning July 11 that Nist had not received a check from BP for lost rental income from two condos he and his wife own. He debated with BP over the amount of the only check received for his vacation rental management business. Nist filed his BP claim in April, the first Monday after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded.

Outlook: “The good news is we seem to be getting back to our business,” Nist said last week. “People are coming back.” He said the upcoming Bon Jovi and Brad Paisley concerts, Thunder on the Gulf powerboat racing and Shrimp Festival are going to be “a nice shot in the arm.” Nist said it’s too late to save June, July and August, but he’s optimistic for next year.

Claims process: Nist continues to wait for checks. The new process has been “exasperating.” Nist said he called the first day Feinberg took over and was told by a representative his claim could not be found in the computer system. “You could almost see the deer in the headlights,” said Nist. “It was like they grabbed people off the street and put them in the phone bank” and told them to “play dumb.” He said that a claims adjuster advised that he go online to find his claim, but the website didn’t recognize his name or original BP claim number. After weeks of repeated calls inquiring about the status of his claim, Nist said he was recently told his claim and paperwork were found. Nist said his claim remains under review. “This process has been nothing but painful,” he said. “How did we think getting the government involved would improve the process?”

Stephen Quinn, 27, Fairhope

Occupation: In 2007 Quinn opened Blackfyn Customs, making aluminum sport-fishing towers for boats.

The Press-Register reported beginning July 29 that Quinn’s expected revenue of $300,000 this year had lagged disastrously. BP paid him $10,400 for lost May income, but he heard nothing else after filing for another $55,000 or so for the summer.

Outlook: On Wednesday, with his equipment in storage, Quinn swept the floor of his empty work shed, shut the doors for good and headed to Tampa, Fla., to take on contract work in boat repair. “It was either stay in the building and face eviction,” he said, “or get out. I wouldn’t say we’re closed. I’d say we’re homeless.”

Claims process: Quinn said that he believes he would have gotten payments for July and August if BP had gone ahead with its claims process. “It would have been approximately $63,000, which would have been enough to have kept us in business here,” he said. “Whenever Feinberg took over, we were told, they stopped all the payments. It got to the point where BP wouldn’t talk to us anymore.” The new process, Quinn said, “tells us any day, any day, we’ll have our claims paid.” But he had yet to receive anything beyond the initial $10,400. “If the oil spill had never happened, I’d still be in the shop, we’d still have an income, I’d have a living and a house, and things would be OK.”

Eddie Spence, 50, Gulf Shores

Occupation: 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 beginning 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. After the spill was capped, they decided to open in October on Old Shell Road. Claims were filed with BP for the restaurants, and checks for May and partial payments for June and July helped cash flow. Revenue at the five beach restaurants was down 25 to 35 percent in June, compared to the same period in 2009.

Outlook: “It’s really tough, and we’re coming into the winter with no reserve,” Spence said. “Business is off considerably, but it’s not like we’re closing. We did have a good Labor Day.” October should be good, he said. “But we need some relief before then.”

Claims process: In-house accountants worked with Bert Sanders, a Gulf Shores accountant, to re-file all claims with the Feinberg-led process. Spence’s new claims were sent Sept. 13. He seeks six months’ compensation for the mini golf center and all of the restaurants except the one in Bay Minette. Sanders told him it should take at least a month to receive any payments. “It doesn’t seem near as positive as it was dealing with BP,” Spence said. “They get perturbed with us calling with questions. At least before, when we filed claims, we had a contact person. It’s disheartening more than anything. You read the paper and see what Feinberg says, and it’s portrayed as being smoother and faster and easier, and none of that has happened in my case.”

Mike Thierry, 58, Dauphin Island

Occupation: Charter captain for 40 years and owner of Captain Mike’s Deep Sea Fishing.

The Press-Register reported beginning May 23 that Thierry mourned the loss of time spent fishing and said that the uncertainty surrounding the oil spill was making it hard to talk to his son, Skipper Thierry, who grew up on his dad’s boats and is a licensed charter captain.

Outlook: Prospects remain uncertain. Thierry and his son have collectively booked 15 trips for the fall red snapper season, expected to open on weekends beginning Oct. 1. “We’re getting a few more phone calls every day,” Mike Thierry said, “but some people are still uneasy about the fish, whether to eat them or not, and the uncertainty of the long-term effects of the oil and dispersants. Some people are saying they’re fine and that the government’s tested them, but for some people, it’s just human nature to be cautious, and I can’t begrudge them that.”

Claims process: Thierry was hired May 5 by BP for its Vessels of Opportunity program, which put boat owners to work in spill cleanup. He was deactivated in early August, then re-hired later that month to work two weeks offshore in a U.S. Coast Guard effort to detect oil in the water column. He now waits for his boat to undergo mandatory decontamination. His wife, Ann Thierry, who has handled claims applications, said the business received two $5,000 emergency checks and four other smaller loss-of-income checks. Payouts were adjusted to factor the money Thierry made working for BP. She said that since re-filing the claim with Feinberg nearly six weeks ago, she has not heard from a claims processor. “I’m pretty sure they know my shoe size with all of the information they have on us, but no one really knows how they’re going to work handling our claims. We are ready to get back to something called normal again.”

Jimmy Waller, 41, Elberta

Occupation: Waller owns the “Big Adventure,” a charter boat based in Orange Beach.

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. He was worried about how he’d keep his business running and pay off the $300,000 owed on his boat, plus support a family that includes a 3-year-old son with cerebral palsy. Waller said that a monthly check from BP was enough to pay the boat note and cover insurance and his slip fee. But on Aug. 27, BP terminated the contract that had paid him $2,000 a day for use of his boat plus another $200-$300 for a day’s work.

Outlook: He’s missing the BP paycheck and feeling the pinch. “Nobody’s called,” Waller said. Most of his clients hunt and watch football, so he’s not optimistic that his boat will be in much demand this fall. “After a year of a bad economy and a year of an oil spill,” Waller said, “if we don’t have a good year in 2011, I pretty much think my future in the charter business is over. I’ll have to do something else.”

Claims process: Waller filed two claims under Feinberg’s process, a personal claim as an employee of his business and a business claim as the owner. He has received six month’s worth of a salary — he declined to give a figure — through the personal claim, but by last week had heard nothing regarding the larger business claim. He said that he’s tried to log onto the claims website to check his status but is unable to do so with the log-on information and password given him. “I’m just waiting like everyone else, and there’s no way to hear what’s going on,” Waller said. “I think Feinberg has a little more on his plate, more numbers to deal with, than he thought.”

Patricia Zirlott, 56, Bayou La Batre

Occupation: She and her husband, Vic Zirlott, own Zirlott Gulf Products, which sells Gulf shrimp, crab, oysters and gourmet seafood entrees, including homemade gumbo.

The Press-Register reported in a June 13 column that Zirlott was worried whether she and her husband could continue their way of life.

Outlook: Patricia Zirlott said Wednesday that the company is still in business, but sales are “way down.” She’s worried that Americans will continue to avoid seafood from the region. “Our name says that our products come from the Gulf,” she said. “People have said that we should change our name, but we have 20 years building a reputation on Gulf products, and it would be hard for people to recognize it if it were something else.”

Claims process: It has been a mess, she said. “I have people who pick crab for us, and none of them are getting treated fairly. One will get something, and another one will get nothing, and they all do the same thing,” she said. “I wish I had kept all the full-page ads that BP ran saying that they were going to make things right” because it hasn’t happened, she said. “There are a lot of people who deserve more than what they are getting.” She planned to file with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility for both her husband and herself last week, despite being discouraged. “You keep trying,” she said. “That’s all you can do. I’m not looking for it to be right.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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