LAFITTE, LA — Residents of this community south of New Orleans haven’t had much good news since the oil started spewing on April 20 in the Gulf of Mexico. Fishing is a way of life here and that’s come to a standstill.
So when Washington sent Ken Feinberg to town, it could’ve turned ugly. Instead, the attorney with a deep Boston accent brightened the spirits of the standing-room-only crowd. Feinberg, tapped by President Obama to oversee the $20 billion compensation fund for victims of the spill, had the audience laughing and in good spirits by the time he was done.
After all, he’s responsible for doling out money. Given the criticism of BP’s claims process, Feinberg is seen as a savior to small businessmen and fishermen whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the oil spill. He’ll distribute $5 billion through the end of year — more than $30 million a day if he begins in August as planned.
By comparison, BP has made payments of $150 million. Sometime in the next three weeks, Feinberg will take over, replacing BP with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. It assumes responsibility for claims yet to be resolved.
Feinberg’s meeting in Lafitte was one of four across Louisiana yesterday. He traveled from Elmwood to Houma, then to Port Sulphur and finally Lafitte to answer questions about the claims process. He was joined by the head of BP claims, Daryl Willis, as well as Gov. Bobby Jindal’s deputy chief of staff Kristy Nichols and Department of Children & Family Services Secretary Ruth Johnson among other local officials.
Many questions dealt with the current claims process, frustration with BP’s response, lack of payments to businesses and the timeline for emergency and long-term compensation. (The above photo was taken at the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corp. to illustrate how some are explaining the claims process.)
The $20 billion compensation fund will provide individuals and businesses with a six-month emergency payment for lost income to those who qualify. There’s also an opportunity to receive a larger lump sum in the future, but it comes under the condition that recipients won’t sue BP.
Feinberg said he would be open to alternative types of documentation for those trying to corroborate their losses, especially fishermen who operate cash-only businesses. However, he made clear he would not tolerate fraud, vowing to employ the help of the Department of Justice to combat it. “Nothing will destroy the credibility of this program more than fraud,” he said. “The money must be spent wisely.”
Feinberg stressed repeatedly that he can’t do his job from a desk in Washington and would be back again next week to hear directly from people impacted by the spill. “I’m working for you,” he told the crowd.