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The independent manager of $20 billion in claims from the Gulf Coast oil disaster reassured Panhandle business owners and officials Monday that their losses will be covered, but first they have to be proven.

Ken Feinberg, the Brockton, Mass., lawyer who supervised claims after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, joined Gov. Charlie Crist at a 90-minute roundtable at Crabs Restaurant that was part grieving session and part legal seminar.

"We will consider their claims immediately on the merits. We will accelerate payments. We will provide six months of payments, not one, at Gov. Crist's request," Feinberg said. "We will allow for filing online, so you don't even have to walk into a claims facility. We will do everything we can to be claimant-friendly."

Feinberg's plainspoken, no-nonsense approach, devoid of legalese, struck a positive chord with the crowd of about 75 people that included county and city officials, real estate agents, restaurateurs, fishermen, hoteliers and others.

Within about two weeks, he said, his office will publish rules for each type of business to document losses. Inland businesses or those far from the disaster, such as in the Tampa Bay area, should file claims just the same.

"Eligible claims are not limited to those motels and restaurants that are impacted by physical degradation of the beach," Feinberg said. "If they've been adversely impacted by the tourism downswing as a result of the leak, by all means, you are not ineligible."

Even people who run all-cash businesses should submit claims, he said. "If you're a fisherman, and you don't have a tax return, show me your profit-and-loss statement," Feinberg said. "The IRS isn't getting this stuff."

Feinberg sought to dispel fears while providing a little hope and humor, and poked fun at his New England accent, referring to "chahtah" fishing boats and President "Obamer."

On his second Florida visit, he promised to keep returning to the Gulf Coast to hear people's concerns directly, and he urged people not to file lawsuits. ''There's no need to litigate here," he said. "Don't file a lawsuit - at least not yet."

So far, BP has issued $150-million in emergency payments to individuals and business owners. But those emergency payments will stop 90 days after the leak is finally plugged, Feinberg said.

Trailed by cameras, Feinberg and Crist took a brief stroll along the beach, where the claims expert was impressed by the pristine sand. "This is fabulous!" Feinberg said, as his black dress shoes sank into the sugary sand.

Within two weeks, Feinberg said, he expects that his office will be put in charge of both government claims and private claims. He said no group has a priority for receiving compensation.

"There's no priority. First in, first out," he said.

Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, and Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, also participated in the roundtable talk.

"A precious 90-day season feels very vulnerable right now," said Patronis, whose family owns the venerable Captain Anderson's restaurant in Panama City. "People aren't filing claims because they're scared, and I characterized it as a 90-day hurricane. This has just been a black cloud over our economy in Northwest Florida."

Feinberg emphasized that he's independent and doesn't work for BP or the White House. "I want to help the people of Florida get over this crisis," Feinberg said. "It would help if the oil would stop."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at or (850) 224-7263.