I finally got to the Gulf coast to work on a story about the oil spill for PBS NewsHour. I didn't see any oil, but what I did witness was a a boatload of fear. Correspondent Tom Beardon and I visited Bayou La Batre, Alabama to attend a town hall meeting with Ken Feinberg, the Massachusetts lawyer who must decide how to allocate BP's $20 billion compensation fund. He has done this kind of work previously for victims of 9/11 and Virginia Tech. Feinberg was mostly reassuring people that help was on the way and was listening to the concerns among the folks who packed city hall at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning. What struck me was how far reaching this catastrophe is on the people who live in towns that dot the Gulf coast.
Bayou La Batre bills itself as the "Seafood Capital of Alabama." The oil spill has rippled through the whole community, disrupting the entire seafood chain. Obviously the fishermen have lost the season, then there are the people who store and process the seafood, like brothers Bruce and Delane Seaman who had to shut down their oyster shucking plant, putting about 40 people out of work. They don't expect to ever reopen. Their customers have gone elsewhere. Then there are folks like Patrick and Lillie Kraver, who own Kravers Seafood Restaurant in Daphne, on the other side of Mobile Bay, and have seen business tumble by about 40%. When Tom asked them if they could survive, they said, "God would provide." These are people whose families have worked in the seafood industry for generations.
And then there are the more indirect losses. The man who has a candy and gift store on the beach and has seen his tourist traffic dry up, another man who has watched his real estate property values tank, even the local minister who has seen his offerings cut almost in half. He reminded Ken Feinberg that when everyone leaves the area it will be the churches and faith-based organizations that care for fragile residents. People came from as far away as Pensacola, Florida. Everyone had a story of loss and hardship and a sense of skepticism deep as the Gulf about whether help was really coming or whether this was more PR. Most have felt jerked around by BP and are hoping Ken Feinberg is really here to help make them at least partially whole. He says he has received claims from 48 states, so he has a huge task trying to decide who will be eligible to receive money and who doesn't qualify. Unlike a hurricane, which comes and goes, this catastrophe and its impacts could crush the community for years -- and everyone needs help to weather the storm and stay afloat.
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