CLEARWATER — Lifelong fisherman Jim Birren Jr. makes his living trapping blue crabs. He and his parents normally haul in $5,000 a week during crab season, but that has dwindled to nothing due to the BP oil spill.
"People are scared to buy seafood. If we can't move our crabs, we can't pay our bills," he said. "My dad's house is falling into foreclosure. We're really starting to sweat."
That's why the Land O'Lakes family showed up Tuesday at a new BP claims office in Clearwater, the oil giant's first in the Tampa Bay area.
The place just opened and doesn't even have phones yet. Its only BP sign is an 81/2-by-11 sheet of paper taped to a window. But managers there say commercial fishermen, restaurateurs and owners of short-term rental properties are starting to trickle in to file claims.
This is BP's only claims center on Florida's west coast between Naples and the Panhandle. A dozen claims adjusters with cell phones are working in the office, which is sandwiched between a beauty academy and a chiropractor in a strip mall off U.S. 19.
Even though the oil spill remains hundreds of miles away, oil fears have hurt local tourism and hampered fishing.
"We've been paying claims in this area over the phone and through the mail," said Bettina Crosby, a BP office manager in Clearwater. "Now we're here to see people face to face. It's just a whole lot easier to look someone in the eyes."
Who's eligible to file a claim? People who can document that they've lost income as a direct result of the oil spill, which started in late April.
For example, a beach hotel with tax receipts showing a drop in occupancy this June compared to previous Junes. Or a restaurant cook whose pay stubs show he worked 40 hours a week until April, but only 20 hours a week in May and June.
On the other hand, if someone walks in and announces that he can't sell his house because of BP, the adjusters aren't authorized to pay him.
"We help people go through what kind of documentation they need. Every situation is a little different," said Chuck Newton, another BP office manager in Clearwater. "Right now it's about keeping food on people's tables and the light bill paid."
BP says more than 80,000 claims have been submitted throughout the Gulf Coast, and so far it has made nearly 41,000 payments totaling $128 million. In Florida, it has paid about 21,000 mostly smaller claims totaling more than $18 million.
Many local businesses that have submitted claims to BP say they're waiting for an answer. The larger and more complex the claim, the longer the wait.
"The real question we've all wondered is, what is the turnaround time for a response and a payment?" said Greg Nicklaus, co-owner of the Sirata Beach Resort. The 380-room hotel in St. Pete Beach just mailed BP a detailed package claiming it has lost business due to the oil spill, and Nicklaus expects it will take some time for BP to review it.
"We keep very detailed records" comparing trends from year to year, Nicklaus said, but newer hotels and restaurants might be out of luck. "For the guy who doesn't have three years of business records and can't provide any tangible explanation for his claim, I feel for that guy."
Meanwhile, commercial fishermen are being asked for tax returns, saltwater fishing licenses and boat registrations. They say they're going broke because of fears of oil-tainted seafood and because swaths of the gulf are now closed to fishing.
"About 90 percent of the fishing grounds for deepwater grouper has been closed for safety reasons. You've got a small area for a lot of boats, so the catches are going to go down," said Bob Spaeth, who owns six fishing boats and the bay area's biggest seafood house in Madeira Beach.
Spaeth worries that local fisherman and fish cutters will move on to other things. He says they can't be easily replaced because they've learned the complicated rules of which fish are fair game during certain times of year.
"If we have to close up the businesses because of lack of cash flow," he said, "I think we're going to lose this industry."
Times photographer Douglas R. Clifford and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.