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Report on the Gulf 1 year after the BP Oil Spill

Down in the Hole - Part II

One year after the BP oil spill, a region perseveres through frustration and heartache

For Rookie Kruse, it all came down to numbers. It had been 64 days since the Deepwater Horizon exploded. Kruse’s Orange Beach, Alabama, charter fishing business was hurting, and at $5,000 per missed outing, his losses were quickly adding up. There was his weight, whittled from a strapping 219 pounds down to 185, and the 14 days straight he had worked for BP in their “Vessels of Opportunity” program doing oil clean-up work—being bossed around on his own boat by relative novices, a job he found unbearable. And then there was that invoice. Always the invoice, all 52 labyrinthine pages he had to fill out to recoup some of his losses incurred by the spill. He seemed certain he would never see the money, frustrated nearly to paralysis by the apparently infinite bureaucracy and anxiety that was strangling his once happy life. “It’s just all madness, Tracy,” he told his wife as she lay in bed in the gauzy morning hours of June 23, 2010. And then he trudged off to work, where William Allen “Rookie” Kruse, age 55, found a solution to his unwinnable numbers game in the most terrible integer of all—one—the number of bullets he pumped into his own head in the pilothouse of his boat.

Perhaps no other anecdote illustrates the human toll of the BP spill to such harrowing extremes as Kruse’s. But there are plenty more stories out there filled with a grave sense of frustration and confusion. For those in the Gulf region whose livelihood depends on the water, life these days remains a far cry from normal—and hope is a precious commodity.

Ali Brenner (not her real name) is a sales rep with a Gulf Coast boat dealership hit hard by the catastrophe. Just how hard she won’t say, but my sense is that desperation is settling in. After reporting for the first part of this story, I asked if she’d seen improvements in sales since word came out that the water may be clean. “Yeah,” she said, her lightly twanged voice rising sharply, “we’ve seen some, but we’re not on track to where we need to be.” In our first interview, she had harangued about the countless hours her company spent putting together thousands of pages of financial documents to prove to the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF), the same fund that swallowed Kruse’s invoice, that the dealership’s losses were legit. When we spoke for what I thought would be the last time for this story, Brenner gave me the distinct impression that the fate of the company rested on whether or not the claim went through.

Three weeks later the phone in my office rang. It was Ali. “Our claim got denied,” she said, an unmistakable lilt of outrage marbling her tone.

“Really? Why?” I asked.

“Other proof needed,” came the deadpan response.

Brenner was not the only Gulf resident I spoke to who is mired in a tar pit of paperwork and financial decline. Capt. Damon McKnight of Venice, Louisiana, has a charter business that is down 85 percent since the spill. He filed a GCCF claim last summer, but only got 20 percent of the money he applied for due to his own paperwork error. He’s asked for new forms, but as of March they hadn’t arrived, and since business is down, his full-time crew now consists of just himself and another captain. The rest of his guys are off somewhere—he supposes mostly hunting or otherwise making ends meet—a situation that is particularly stinging, since from what he’s seen, the fish are out there. The captain says the tuna are plentiful and the red snapper are biting aggressively.

But making ends meet is nothing new down in the Gulf, where people are still plowing through the three sisters of Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession, and now the Spill—events that were almost diabolically spaced out, allowing businesses and families to stagger back to their feet just in time to be flattened by another wave of calamity. The attitude of a number of people I spoke to was perhaps best summed up by another charter captain, Johnny Greene of Intimidator Charters in Orange Beach, who when asked “What’s next?” responded, “Well, you can sit on the sidelines and whine and scream about getting done wrong or you can do what you gotta do. And that’s what we’re doing. We’re gonna stay positive and get through this somehow.”

Greene and others in Orange Beach are lucky in that they have a vocal—some might say pugnacious—champion in Mayor Tony Kennon, a squarely built, mustachioed man with silver hair and eyes that flicker between kindness and a shiny, tightly controlled rage depending on the subject at hand. He closed on a 45-foot Viking just days before the spill, and considered Rookie Kruse a friend. Not surprisingly, lately his eyes have been shining a lot. A quick Google search pulls up multiple videos of Kennon decrying the injustices of the GCCF, and when I speak to him he’s no less forthright. He takes particular issue with the fund processing individual claims faster than those of businesses. He calls those individual claims “hush money,” smaller dollar amounts that opiate the masses but do no real good for the community at large. “Kenneth Feinberg [the Obama-appointed administrator of the GCCF] is making God-like decisions for our business community,” says the mayor, a situation he calls a “nightmare.” Case in point: A hotel in town filed for $1.2 million in recompense but received just $14,000. According to Kennon, when he and his accountant asked Feinberg face-to-face how that could possibly be right, Feinberg simply looked down, avoided eye contact, and nodded. “The emperor has no clothes,” Kennon will tell anyone who asks, “and it’s time people knew it.”

In a decidedly hurried interview, Feinberg responded, “I am working with the mayor to accelerate claims, make them more generous, and deal with inconsistencies and lack of transparency.” No doubt, his job seems Sisyphean. There’s a vast amount of information to sift through, and discerning between fraudulent claims and the truly needy presents a very real hurdle to the process. Simply put, there is no fast way to dole out payments from the fund—and there may be no better way than the system that’s already in place. And so the GCCF wades through a deluge of financial documents, as the people of the Gulf sit, wait, and pray.

As of now, the GCCF has received approximately 144,000 applications and doled out $3.47 billion in claims. And in Orange Beach and its sister city of Gulf Shores, 32 miles of sugary, ocean-kissed sand lay pristine and virtually oil-free—yet tourism is still down 41 percent. More ominously, 20 infant and stillborn dolphins have recently washed up in the vicinity; a rate three times higher than normal. And so the numbers in the Gulf of Mexico continue to add up, though they may never really even out. And what Rookie Kruse felt so profoundly in his bedroom that morning, in the murky moments between darkness and light—that madness of which he spoke—it continues to engulf a region, separating a people from their former lives, as surely as oil repels water.

Part I of this report >>

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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