Lambasted by charges that his response to the gulf oil spill comes across as emotionally flat, President Barack Obama has made repeated vows to stand by the victims "until they are made whole."
His ambitious promise now stands as the rhetoric of choice among political leaders looking to sympathize with those affected by the environmental and financial crisis. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry and Gov. Charlie Crist have made near identical pledges and a trio of Democratic congressmen demanded oil giant BP postpone $10 billion in dividend payments to stockholders until "the people of the gulf (are) made whole."
Problem is, what does it mean?
"That is the one question I have been asking for five weeks," said Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon, who fears the sheets of oil sliding toward the shores of his Alabama tourist haven will bring new financial hardships after weeks of canceled hotel reservations and half-empty seafood shacks. "That is the one question we need to know before we can move forward."
Politicians are well aware of the power of words.
Obama, a legal scholar with a penchant for headline-grabbing speeches, hasn't elaborated on his definition of "made whole," but his repetition suggests he thinks it is a good message. It means he wants to help. It means he cares. But, as with many political messages, "made whole" has more than one layer.
In legal jargon, "made whole" implies full restitution. A stolen laptop is replaced. Hospital bills are paid. A cracked windshield is repaired.
But the Gulf of Mexico crisis likely won't be so easily resolved. Some losses could be hard to prove in court or even single out, creating a complicated web of cause and effect that might not immediately produce a culprit, said economic and legal scholars.
"What (Obama) said is true. They (BP) are going to be responsible for the damage they did," said Fred Levin, a trial lawyer in Pensacola. "The question is, what is the damage they did?"
In other words, will those indirectly hurt by the oil spill be "made whole," too? Or does the promise only apply to the victims who can successfully make their case in court?
Consider some potential ramifications. If affected business owners can no longer afford to send their children to private schools, should the schools file a claim? If the private schools hire fewer teachers because of declining enrollment, do the unemployed teachers get help? And if those teachers then can no longer afford to buy quality meat from the local supermarket, how does the supermarket prove its losses are tied to the oil spill?
It's simply not clear, said Peter Henning, a former federal prosecutor who teaches criminal law at Wayne State University in Detroit.
"To the extent you are talking about just the cleanup, yes, BP is on the hook, but to the extent that you are saying we are going to return these communities to what they were, the law does not appear to extend that far," he said. "While it is couched in legal terms, this is really more of a political promise than a legal assertion."
Wordsmiths countered "made whole" is not an abstract concept.
"To 'make whole' means exactly what it says, meaning not to kind of prop you up, not to give you some aid, but to put you back precisely where you were," said Paul JJ Payack, president of the Global Language Monitor based in Austin, Texas, which analyzes speech. "It is a very precise choice of words and they know it."
BP so far has paid $49 million to individuals or small businesses through its claims process and sent out roughly 18,000 checks, spokesman Max McGahan said.
"We have said we will compensate individuals and businesses in full for whatever damages or loss of income has resulted from the oil spill. We have made that commitment very clearly," McGahan said.
He declined to address the "made whole" pledge.
It is a familiar promise to those hit by the nation's last great oil disaster.
After the Exxon Valdez dumped 257,000 barrels of oil near Alaska's shores in 1989, a company spokesman told residents, "we will consider whatever it takes to keep you whole."
That never happened, said Jim Adams, a regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation.
"The residents of Prince Williams Sound, where this took place, do not feel as if they were made whole," he said.
There are at least 14 species still recovering from that oil spill. In its annual report, Alaska's Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council determined area fishing and tourism industries have yet to fully recover.
Already, the gulf crisis far outsizes the Exxon disaster. Recent estimates found the BP spill is leaking up to 40,000 barrels of oil a day.
Sean Snaith, director of the Institute for Economic Competitiveness at the University of Central Florida, said the public isn't hearing many details about how victims will be "made whole" because the concept is impossible.
"To be 'made whole' means to undo the damage that was done by the oil spill and I don't think the full damage will ever get undone," he said.
He estimated the spill could cost Florida at least $10 billion in tourism dollars and 130,000 jobs in its coastal communities.
Not every loss is financial.
Sheryl Revette of State Line, Miss., was married to her husband, Dewey, for 26 years. They had two daughters.
He was drilling on the rig when it exploded. He and 10 others died.
"It's the hardest thing anyone can ever go through, especially with no closure," Revette said. "You don't get to see them in the casket or the hospital bed. You have to think back to the last time you saw them."
Revette, 46, isn't upset with Obama or the oil companies. Drilling is a way of life where she is from.
"Why should we be dependent on other countries when we have it right here?" she said.
Revette said Transocean, a Swiss company that owns the drilling rig, has reached out to her. A financial settlement would help, but she said she was not sure if she will ever be made whole again.
"Nothing will ever take his place," she said.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected]