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A Sticky Residue of Human Suffering

One happy tourist season after the BP oil spill, the beaches may be white again and swarmed with tourists, but an abundance of suffering and economic damage remains.

Bob Higgins, chairman of the Coastal Resiliency Coalition

Bob Higgins, chairman of the Coastal Resiliency Coalition

A year and a half since the BP oil spill erupted, the Alabama Gulf Coast, like everyone else, would just as soon forget it ever happened.
       But coastal residents can’t afford to forget—especially the 75 percent who have filed damage claims with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility and not heard back.
       To get an insider view on conditions, we talked with Bob Higgins, who is chairman of the Coastal Resiliency Coalition—a group of local leaders that was formed in June 2010 by the Alabama Gulf Coast Area Chamber of Commerce and the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce. The coalition meets twice weekly to assess area needs and help coordinate local, state and federal resources. Trying to get Washington, D.C. and the Claims Facility to listen to the voices of the disaster’s economic victims is one of the group’s chief concerns. Among the initiatives the coalition works with are Project Rebound, a state-funded mental health counseling service, and the Gulf Coast Business Support Center, a university-supported service created in response to the disaster.  
Higgins also is senior vice president with the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance.

We didn’t know whether all of our guests would come back, and by and large they have. In most of the months since last fall we have set records in terms of the number of people and lodging tax revenue. They missed our beach last year, and this year they came back and brought friends.

Recreational fishing and retail seafood are strong. But commercial fishermen still need to win back the market. When they closed commercial fishing last year, the national distributors picked other suppliers to fill the market. Some of the larger commercial fishing companies are off 50 to 60 percent.

Small business people are struggling to survive. It’s one of our highest priorities, watching over people. The state department of mental health has 20 counselors in Baldwin and Mobile counties reaching out to people and helping families. The human suffering—attempted suicides, drug abuse—is still climbing. If you’ve been out of work for six to nine months, even if you get your job back, the family finances are in bad shape.

They were coming out of two years of recession and they had the oil spill on top of that. It all adds up. A lot of these people had never been without a job: real estate brokers on their second career, people who always paid their rent or mortgage and were able to support their families, people who never had to apply for unemployment and go to the food bank. They are in shock and deeply embarrassed. And they tend to blame each other in the family and it goes downhill from there. We’ve seen it migrate into the schools, children going through that as well. Project Rebound has been working in the schools. There are a number of children whose only meals are lunch at the school, and they just got funded for scholarship summer camps, where they will get a couple of meals in the course of the day.

On top of that, the Gulf Cost Claims Facility suddenly told these people that unless you are directly affected by oil on the beach—say, if you owned a vet clinic and business was off 60 percent because there were no tourists—too bad. It was a shock, and it came after BP had promised, “Don’t worry. We’ll make you all whole.” When they transitioned to Feinberg, it became much more rigid. We’ve had countless meetings with Ken Feinberg and tried to explain to him the tourist economy—in which everyone is tied to tourism, from financial counselors to strip mall owners to orthodontists. The uncertainty of the claims process added to the stress. One of the things that needs to be done as the oil industry goes forward is there needs to be a claims process and adjuster process and to never again promise people you are going to make them whole.

When the oil spill first happened, we got strong support from Bill Taylor, who now runs the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama. He put together a conference call with five state universities and their vice presidents of research and the deans of the colleges of business and somebody from the human survival standpoint: UAB, USA, UAH, Auburn and the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. They had a five-and-a-half-hour working session at Gulf Shores and brought in the data from the Exxon Valdez and found things like the fact that human suffering peaked five years after the spill. They decided that was one thing they needed to get ahead of. The Department of Mental Health made a request to the state of Alabama for $12 million that was roughly split between Mobile and Baldwin counties.

The day before the university representatives showed up for their meeting, one charter boat captain committed suicide on the docks in Orange Beach, and it really underscored the problem. Robin and her crew were there after that. And at that point, we realized that we’re all in this together.

Some things have changed, but it’s slow in coming. Initially there was only an emergency claims process, and that went directly into a final claim. You can’t predict the long-term future of something like the fishing industry, so they put in place an interim claims process. They did do that. Also, we would have CPA firms that would put together claims for their clients and find that BP and Feinberg would not trust the numbers as accurate. They finally agreed, “Ok, if it comes from there, we won’t question it quite as much.”

The rate of processing claims is awful. Over 75 percent of all claims have not been accepted for final claims payments. In some cases, they’ve made an offer that’s too far off from what the claimant filed. 

One valuable resource is the Gulf Coast Business Support Center. A combination of chambers of commerce and local community colleges and the Alabama Technology Network put counselors in place, and there has been a strong push by the chambers to get businesses in and talk to those counselors. We’ve discovered that some of these were teetering on the brink even before the oil spill. Over 240 businesses, with a total of 1,800 employees, now have come through the business support center.

We have to invest in things that will diversify the economy, industries unrelated to the beach. We have a mega-site in Bay Minette that will help. In hospitality and tourism, we have to invest in bringing groups in who are not coming just for the beach. In the last couple of years, Orange Beach and Gulf Shores formed a sports marketing commission that has focused on team sports, for big regional tournaments. That is one segment that has improved. They’ve sold over 30,000 room nights. Another example would be to complete a convention center on the beach.

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