HERNANDO BEACH — A week ago, Kathy and Ron Birren made the two-hour trek to Clearwater in the hope of getting BP to make good on its promise to help offset losses to their commercial fishing business caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
What transpired during the five hours they spent at a claims center left them frustrated and angry.
Instead of the financial relief they were seeking, the Hernando Beach couple said they got little more than lip service from a disorganized, disinterested and rude staff.
"It was a complete joke," offered Kathy Birren, who along with her husband, owns and operates Hernando Beach Seafood, plus five grouper fishing boats. "I left feeling as though they thought we were the bad guys in all of this."
Birren said the experience left her in tears.
Birren said that before arriving at the claims office, she and her husband gathered all the paperwork they were told they would need — records showing the amount of business before the spill, plus the recent records of their commercial catch required by the state's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Birren said the BP claims agent told them they were only eligible to receive $5,000 — a fraction of what is needed to keep their business going. Birren said she wasn't the only one that left frustrated that day.
"From what I heard, they weren't paying anyone who wasn't a longline fisherman," Birren said. "If you were a shrimper or a crabber, you were out of luck."
BP spokesman Max McGahan said although he couldn't speak specifically to Birren's case, his company intends to pay all legitimate claims presented to it.
"If they (the Birrens) have a large claim it may take a while longer to process," McGahan said. "The company is working hard to assure that nothing is overlooked."
McGahan said he was unfamiliar with the Clearwater office, which opened recently and is BP's only claims center on Florida's west coast between Naples and the Panhandle. He said the company is constantly refining its operation so claims can be processed more efficiently.
"Being a new office, they might have been overwhelmed a bit," said McGahan, who estimated his company has written about 50,000 checks for claims since the spill occurred in April.
Birren, who has been helping organize local commercial fishermen, said business has plummeted about 40 percent in recent weeks. Though the oil spill is hundreds of miles away, oil fears have hurt demand for seafood from the Gulf Of Mexico. Those who still fish regularly are having a tougher time as available fishing grounds continue to shrink.
Last month, with the help of former Hernando County Commissioner Diane Rowden, Birren organized a rally and petition drive that helped persuade Gov. Charlie Crist to extend the renewal deadline for commercial fishing licenses for 90 days.
Since then, however, she said she has not seen any government representatives visit Hernando Beach's fishing docks.
"It's like everybody forgot about us," Birren said. "People out here are hurting right now. I don't know how much longer some of them can hold on."
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com or 848-1435.