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General News    H4'ed 1/21/11

Feinberg blasted in public meetings across Gulf Coast

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Crossposted from Bridge The Gulf.

In two weeks of public meetings across the Gulf Coast, Kenneth Feinberg is hearing pointed criticism of the claims process he is leading.  Residents point to inconsistency and lack of transparency as major problems.

In three of those town hall meetings last week in Louisiana and Mississippi, residents called for his resignation, suggested changes to the process, expressed anger over their denied claims, and even brought along massive binders and manila folders filled with their financial records, some of which had been denied for "insufficient documentation."

Throughout the meetings, the anger and growing desperation in these coastal communities was never far below the surface.

Anger rises in Bay St. Louis

In a packed American Legion Post in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, a father described having his claim denied, while his son received a payment.  They worked together on the same shrimp boat.

People spoke again and again of glaring inconsistencies like this in their communities, workplaces, and families, as some get fat settlement checks and others get nothing.

Amy Sullivan, who works at the Hard Rock Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, says some of her co-workers received payments but she was denied. "Why is it so inconsistent?  You can call the 800 number, hang up, call back and get a completely different answer."

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Thao Vu questions Feinberg in Bay St. Louis. Photo by Ada McMahon.

Feinberg says he's improving the process by hiring local representatives to supplant the 800 number, improving the methodology for determining how to pay claims, and making that methodology transparent.  He says the improved methodology will be posted online within a month.

But many see the fact that the methodology is not yet ready or transparent as a problem. They say they hoped to have more concrete answers during these meetings, but it's more of the same.

Ray McGill, a 35 year old from Picayune, Mississippi, says things were going well for him before the oil disaster. He had just opened up a restaurant, Ray's Shrimp Shack, in February 2010. "It was doing really good.  I kept a packed house.  I offered gumbo; I offered Dungeness crab, blue crab." 

Now, Ray's Shrimp Shack is out of business. Like so many at this meeting he is there to ask about why his claim was so low, "when I know that all of my documentation is right." He received just $6,200 to cover the losses his seafood restaurant, shrimp boat, and trucking business have sustained since the BP disaster began.  "I'm just trying to hang on, pay my bills anyway I can.  I'm trying to cut hair on the side, barbering" It's hard.  The economy's bad, and I just don't know where else to turn" We are all hurting."

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Ray McGill in Bay St. Louis.  Photo by Ada McMahon

Grand Isle: Mr. Feinberg, you're fired!

At a late afternoon meeting in the community center on Grand Isle, Louisiana, resident Karen Hopkins gave Mr. Feinberg his walking papers, a petition calling for his resignation signed by about 400 people.  She says even more would have signed, but were afraid of retaliation from Feinberg, who holds the economic future of so many Gulf residents in his hands.

The petition calls into question the legality of some of Feinberg's policies, like requiring that people sign away their ability to sue when they accept a final payment.  It also criticizes the way Feinberg's operation, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, has handled health claims.  Cherri Foytlin, who co-founded Gulf Change with Hopkins and others, says only about 50 out of 400 medical claims have been approved.

Hopkins says that the problem lies not just with a massive compensation process that is bound to face challenges, but with Feinberg himself; "[He] is not doing a good job, because he is not of us.  He doesn't have the heart that it takes to administer that fund fairly..."

Solidarity across race in Lafitte

A forty minute drive south of New Orleans, in Lafitte, Louisiana fishermen in the standing room only crowd wore orange ribbons around their upper arms, and stickers identifying their place in the seafood industry: "I shrimp therefore I am," "I shuck therefore I am," "I crab therefore I am," in Vietnamese and English.

Daniel Nguyen explains that the ribbons "show solidarity amongst race, amongst different industries."  Nguyen works for the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation, which organized translation and a charter bus to make sure the Vietnamese community in and around Orleans Parish could participate.

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Fishermen listen to a Vietnamese interpreter at the Lafitte meeting.  Photo by Ada McMahon.

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ADA McMAHON is an independent writer and videographer currently based in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is a Media Fellow with Bridge the Gulf, a media project led by Gulf Coast communities working toward justice and sustainability. (more...)
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