Some local business owners who have lost money because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill already have received payment for their claims, while others are hurrying to file before a Nov. 23 deadline.
The deadline applies to emergency claims for compensation for lost earnings caused by the spill, but filing after that date will not disqualify a claim, although it may slow the payment process, according to the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF), which took over the claims process from British Petroleum in August.
The deadline to file a final claim is Aug. 23, 2013.
To be compensated, claimants must demonstrate a financial hardship caused by the spill, using financial documentation such as income tax returns from previous years.
In Manatee County, 19 claims totaling $295,600 had been paid as of Oct. 1, the last date for which figures were available from the GCCF.
The fishing industry received the most compensation (40 percent), followed by food, beverage and lodging (23 percent), rental property (13 percent), retail, sales and service (13 percent), seafood processing and distribution (9 percent), and tourism and recreation (2 percent).
Statewide, more than $588 million in individual and business lost earnings claims has been paid, with more than $604 million paid separately to real estate brokers and agents, according to a Nov. 4 GCCF report.
Commercial fishing losses
One Cortez commercial fisherman who asked that his name not be used said that when he filed a claim on June 1 directly with BP, the process was simple. He received $2,500 only eight days later, followed by $1,800 more three weeks later, and was given an option to divide the remainder of his approved claim of $26,000 over six or 12 months, he said.
After the GCCF took over the claims process, he had to reapply for his claim, using a much more complicated form, he said. When he was given the option to request a single payoff, he took it.
He is still waiting for that payment.
“People who got their paperwork in early with BP are getting paid,” said Maryland attorney Justin Bloom, who traveled to Cortez several months ago to offer his services to fishermen. “If they filed more recently, they go through GCCF, which will take a while. If people are not satisfied, they will file suit.”
So far, no local fishermen have signed up to sue with Bloom, who is representing several Florida Panhandle charter captains.
Fishing losses stem from the closure of federal Gulf waters due to oil and chemical dispersant contamination, he said.
When the oil spill began on April 20, fishermen already were stinging from the temporary commercial longline ban, which became permanent on May 26, shortly after 19 percent of the Gulf was closed due to the expanding oil spill. In June, during the worst of the disaster, 37 percent of the Gulf was closed to fishing.
Fishermen are doubly bitter about the spill because the longline ban was implemented primarily to save sea turtles, and the spill caused the deaths of 609 sea turtles and the injury of 535 turtles, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Some fishermen were able to make up their losses by joining BP’s Vessel of Opportunity Program, which, in some cases, paid better than a normal fishing season, Bloom said. The program employed captains to help clean up surface oil from shorelines and the open Gulf.
“But who knows what’s going to happen in the future,” he said, with potential medical claims arising from exposure to oil and chemical dispersants. “The question of long-term exposure is still out there. We’re going to be filing a class action for medical monitoring of those exposed.”
Tourism-related businesses are suffering, too.
Wavesplash Watersports at the Bradenton Beach Marina opened its personal watercraft rental business in April, just before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, co-owner Louis Mandel said.
His target market is visitors from out of state and out of the country, who normally book vacations in advance, but stayed away in droves after news of the oil spill spread, he said.
“They didn’t know back in April and May what was going to happen a few months out, so they didn’t book,” he said. “Hotels got some business from Florida residents, but that didn’t help us. Everyone in Florida knows someone with a Jet Ski they can borrow.”
He filed a claim with BP in August, then had to refile when the GCCF took over. This month, he finally got a response, requesting more information.
Mandel attended a meeting in Holmes Beach last month with a Pensacola law firm that offered to file individual lawsuits against BP for those dissatisfied with the claims process for a 25 percent fee plus costs.
Holmes Beach Commissioner John Monetti, who organized the meeting, said he intends to file a claim himself, but does not need to file before the Nov. 23 emergency claim deadline, as his losses may continue to mount.
“I have a rental home that is sitting empty that last fall was full,” he said. “I think there’s a direct correlation.”
Some are finding it tricky to estimate losses.
Ken Gerry, general manager of White Sands Beach Resort in Holmes Beach, said that with some guests coming earlier in the year to avoid what they thought might be the delayed arrival of the oil in southwest Florida, there was actually an increase in business for a time. But there’s no way to know how many people decided against a visit, he said.
And it’s not easy to put a price tag on having to spend two hours instead of five minutes convincing a repeat guest to visit, or on spending time documenting a claim, he added.
“The time of year we would be affected is coming up now,” Gerry said, adding that visitors have been trickling in, enjoying the clean beaches, then going home to tell people that local beaches are not affected by the oil.
“And calls are coming in less frequently asking about oil,” he said.
“It isn’t as though there was oil on the beaches, but there might as well have been,” as potential visitors’ perceptions of the beach were tarnished by the oil spill, said Barbara Rodocker, who serves on the Manatee County Tourist Development Council and runs the Sun House restaurant and the Bridgewalk and Silver Surf resorts in Bradenton Beach.
Rodocker said that filing a claim is relatively easy with a computerized recordkeeping system; she is awaiting a reply from GCCF.
Jim Brady, owner of the West Coast Surf Shop in Holmes Beach, drove to the GCCF Clearwater office last week to file his claim, and said it was much easier in person than online.
He brought two years of income tax and sales tax records to show the difference in profits from May to October 2010 and previous years, and was told he would be paid in three to four weeks.
Hiring a lawyer to sue for compensation would reduce the amount of the claim by the attorney fee, he said. Law firms soliciting clients on the Island have quoted fees ranging from 15 to 35 percent of the claim.
Some claims, like Joan Dickinson’s, have been in the “under review” category of the claims process for too long, she said, calling the process “a big black hole.”
Dickinson was unable to sell a house on the Island due to the oil spill, because prospective buyers were frightened about the quality of the Gulf and the beaches, she said, adding, “I didn’t file a lawsuit, but I may still do that.”
The house is still for sale.
Business owners interested in filing claims or suing should compile letters of cancellation, income tax returns, occupancy or sales figures for the past three years, mitigation efforts, cancelled contracts, financial statements and other documentation, advised Julie Harrington, of the Florida State University Center for Economic Forecasting and Analysis, who is working with law firms to forecast future oil-related losses.
Know the answers to questions like “How did the spill lead to your loss?” and “Where would you be today if the spill didn’t happen?” she said.
To file a claim online, visit www.gulfcoastclaimsfacility.com.