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BP pays out $3 million to Floridians who lost business to spill

Forty days after the Deepwater Horizon disaster began, not a drop of oil from the undersea gusher has been confirmed to have hit Florida.

Yet as of Friday, BP had paid out more than $3 million in claims to nearly 4,000 Floridians. BP spokesman Ray Dempsey said the company hasn't turned anyone down so far.

Still, some Floridians say BP has done about as good a job at helping them cope with their financial losses as it has in stopping the oil from flowing.

"On the news, they're talking about how much they're doing for everybody, but they haven't done nothing for us," said Bill McCullers, who owns three commercial fishing boats in Madeira Beach.

Some fishermen say they haven't been able to get anything but a runaround out of BP. Others say they were handed a check for $2,500 or $5,000, but that's not much compared with their expenses.

"That's the expense of going on one fishing trip," said Bob Spaeth, who owns six commercial fishing boats and Madeira Beach Seafood.

Both Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat, and Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican, have criticized BP's claims process.

"They're up in the Panhandle issuing checks of $1,000 and $2,000, and you've got charter fishing operations that are experiencing losses of $10,000," Sink said.

No government agency is looking over BP's shoulder, either. Under the law, the U.S. Coast Guard is supposed to review how the company sets up its payment of claims but does not see any of the claims that are filed, a Coast Guard spokesman said.

And BP itself isn't processing the claims. Instead, it has hired a company called ESIS to dispatch about 400 adjusters across the Gulf Coast. An ESIS spokeswoman would not answer questions about the Deepwater Horizon claims process.

So far, BP reports paying about $30 million in claims to some 25,000 people in six states. That works out to about $1,200 per person. Dempsey, the BP spokesman, said even people who have already been paid can file fresh claims as the spill continues into the summer.

"This thing is basically a catastrophe on the installment plan," said Stuart Smith, an attorney whose New Orleans firm, Smith Stag LLC, has organized a joint venture with nine others to file legal claims against BP. Among their clients: hotels in the Florida Panhandle that have lost customers.

The biggest chunk of the money that BP has paid out so far in Florida, $1.2 million, went to reimburse people for lost income.

Shrimpers, for instance, claimed $226,000 in lost income from the spill, while commercial fishermen said they had lost $397,000 from being blocked from prime fishing grounds.

Although no oil has hit Florida, the government's closure of a quarter of the Gulf of Mexico to fishing due to the spill has prevented boats from going out to catch seafood for restaurants and grocery stores, the fishermen say.

"Our business is dead," said Dean Pruitt, who owns six fishing boats in Madeira Beach but says he has not been able to persuade BP's adjusters to pay him a dime. "I don't know what game they're playing."

Pruitt said the adjusters he's been able to reach on the phone have suggested that he could still send his boats into other parts of the gulf. He said he thinks they don't understand how commercial fishing boats operate, going out for two weeks at a time to bring back a catch worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Charter boat captains were the profession paid the most by BP in Florida. They collected a total of $421,000 to repay them for all the clients who canceled trips over the past month.

Wes Rozier, 48, has been running charters out of Pensacola since he was 16. He visited an adjuster in person and collected one $5,000 check, he said, with the understanding that it was just to cover his mortgage and boat payments for the month.

But when he went back seeking more money — with records showing he had lost 70 percent of his scheduled charter customers — the adjuster sent him home empty-handed, he said.

"I don't feel all warm and fuzzy about them anymore," he said. "I think they are paying out this money just for PR purposes."

According to BP spokesman Dempsey, the number of claims still awaiting resolution in Florida is fewer than 100.

BP CEO Tony Hayward has said repeatedly that the company will pay all "legitimate claims." In a May 10 letter, BP attorney John Lynch Jr. wrote to officials in five states that it "is BP's position that the cap on liability under the Oil Pollution Act is not relevant; BP will pay necessary cleanup costs associated with the spill and legitimate claims for other loss and damage."

Florida claims by the numbers

. Amount of claims paid in Florida so far: $3 million

. Number of claims paid in Florida: 4,000

. Top business loss claims so far: charter boat captains ($421,000); commercial fishermen ($397,000); shrimpers ($226,000 ); rental property ($36,000).

To file a claim

Call 1-800-440-0858 or visit bp.com/claims.

BP pays out $3 million to Floridians who lost business to spill 05/31/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 8:36am]
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