Talbot: 100 days into crisis, Gulf Coast still lacks answers on oil spill


Terry Deaton hasn’t swung a hammer in three months.

When you’re a carpenter, that’s a problem.

Construction work was short along the coast prior to April 20, when BP’s ruptured well began gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

One hundred days later, there’s nothing being built. Deaton, 56, is unemployed.

Divorced, and with a daughter in college, he’s struggling to make ends meet. On June 28, he swallowed his pride, gathered his bank statements and took a place in line at the BP claims processing center on Dauphin Island.

Every day since has been an exercise in futility. He’s filled out endless paperwork. There’s always another form, another document, another letter needed to complete his application.

Meanwhile, the bills keep piling up. The bank is threatening to foreclose on his house. The creditors keep calling.

Deaton returns regularly to the claims center to check on his status. Four weeks running, and it never changes: “Your case is being reviewed.”

Deaton is losing sleep.

“I’m up to my head here,” he said Tuesday. “I’m about to go underwater.”

Gulf Coast people are tough. They are resilient. But they have their limits.

One hundred days into the spill, we still have more questions than answers.

BP has capped the well, and appears to be on its way to controlling the catastrophe. But the Gulf Coast remains trapped in a kind of purgatory.

How much oil is out there? Where will it go? How long will it last?

One hundred days into the spill, we still don’t know whether the damage is fleeting or permanent.

The oil is bad; the uncertainty is brutal.

“It’s the unknowns that keep you up at night,” said David Bronner, the head of the Retirement Systems of Alabama.

RSA, at Bronner’s direction, has sunk millions of dollars into real estate developments in Mobile and Baldwin counties. The public pension fund owns Mobile’s landmark Battle House Hotel and the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, the state’s pre-eminent resort.

Investors, Bronner said, hate uncertainty because it translates to risk.

“Three or four years ago, you know the potential down there and you know where the market is going,” Bronner said. “Now, you’re nervous about the impact of all this and the future becomes very cloudy.”

The only parallel, he said, is New York City after 9/11.

“Every businessman up there just refused to make a decision. They were frozen,” said Bronner, whose RSA owns 55 Water Street, New York’s largest office building. “The problem is you can’t make a major decision in a crisis, because everything could be wiped away. Investors get paralyzed, or they go somewhere else.”

Time, he said, is the only answer. But will recovery come in a year or a decade?

“We’re in that window now, where none of us know the scope of it,” Bronner said.

“We don’t know if this is a Louisiana problem or a Gulf of Mexico problem. And the difficulty of a crisis like this is, you can’t call out the National Guard to fix it. We don’t have the ability to solve it, so we have to hope for the best and rely on good leadership from BP and our politicians. It’s not a good place to be in, but that’s where we are.”

One hundred days into the spill, the Gulf Coast remains trapped in BP limbo.

The pressure keeps building on workers like Deaton. It weighs on the fisherman in Bayou La Batre, the boat builder in Mobile and the waitress in Gulf Shores.

Their lives have been disrupted; the stress they’re under is crushing.

If Deaton’s story is any example, BP seems painfully oblivious.

On Monday, he went back to the claims center to check on his application. He said he just wanted to know if help was coming, and when.

The agent asked for more paperwork. Deaton’s shoulders sagged; he asked for counseling.

He was given a 1-800 number. When he got home and called, he said, he got a recording saying that the number was disconnected.

“You don’t know whether to laugh or to cry,” he said. “I just want to work. I’ve never gone this long without a job. I can’t keep this up forever.”

Michelle Morel

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

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