To understand the pain, come down to the Gulf Coast


A native American proverb says that in order to understand another person, you must walk in his shoes. It is that spirit in which we implore the editors of The New York Times and The Washington Post to come see for themselves the misery, frustrations and fears of the people entangled in the oil-spill claims process.

In editorials last week, both newspapers suggested that coastal Alabama residents and businesses are greedy and that Alabama politicians are “grandstanding” on constituents’ behalf.

According to the editorials, claims czar Kenneth Feinberg is doing a commendable job despite claimants’ and politicians’ best efforts to hoodwink, manipulate and bully him.

If members of the papers’ editorial boards would leave the East Coast for the Gulf Coast, they could meet face-to-face with the people who have been brutalized by the process.

In Bayou La Batre, they could sit down with Vic and Patricia Zirlott, sixth-generation commercial fishermen who’ve still not received their six-month emergency payment, even though they’ve submitted profit-and-loss statements and five years worth of revenue numbers.

In Gulf Shores, they could watch real estate executive Sheila Hodges thumb through the 1,000 pages of documentation she filed in support of her Gulf Shores company’s claim that it lost millions of dollars when tourists cancelled their reservations after the BP oil spill.

Ms. Hodges could tell them how it feels to be offered pennies on the dollar by Mr. Feinberg.

In Foley, chamber of commerce executive Donna Watts could introduce them to small-business owners who are on the verge of closing their doors — and some who have gone out of business — because they haven’t gotten what they’re owed.

Having seen for themselves the anguish on the Gulf Coast, editorial writers could then see that Mr. Feinberg’s numbers do not tell the stories of individual businesses that have received a fraction of what they’re owed.

We predict the editorial writers would find it much easier to understand why Alabama Gov. Bob Riley called the process “extortion” and why Congressman Jo Bonner asked the Justice Department to investigate Mr. Feinberg’s claims operation.

When he took the job as the independent arbiter of claims, Mr. Feinberg promised the process would be fair, prompt and generous. Instead, it has been arbitrary, slow and stingy. Many claimants say they’ve been made to feel like beggars.

The Press-Register’s editorial board has called on the Obama administration to fire Kenneth Feinberg. We did so with the confidence that comes when a newspaper immerses itself in a story and understands the folks involved.

We invite The New York Times and The Washington Post to meet the people seeking restitution and see for themselves who’s doing the grandstanding.

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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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