Engulfed: Putting a price on suffering

Thursday, July 15, 2010 | 10:26 p.m. CDT; updated 11:51 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 16, 2010
Kenneth Feinberg discusses BP's $20 billion compensation fund with fishermen affected by the spill in Plaquemines Parish, La.

PORT SULPHUR, La. — Whether or not you think it’s right, your life has a dollar value.

Like stolen paintings, like wrecked cars, like burned-down houses, human loss can be measured in money — at least if you’re Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer and mediator appointed to dole out the $20 billion in BP’s compensation fund.

And the fishermen of Plaquemines Parish are learning this firsthand, in the form of $5,000 checks that are meant to keep them on their feet and out of the courtroom.

On Thursday afternoon, Feinberg met with area residents at the St. Patrick Catholic Church in Port Sulphur to discuss the claims process behind BP’s fund, rattling off sound bites with the tell-it-like-it-is demeanor of a stingy — but ultimately benevolent — wealthy uncle.

“We’ve got to accelerate the (claims) process, make it quicker,” Feinberg said, speaking to an arc of TV cameras positioned in front of a crowd sitting on tables typically used for church dinners and bingo. He exhorted the crowd to try the process, stressing each syllable of “I can not help you if you do not file a claim.”

Feinberg was practically the only man wearing a tie in a room of roughly two hundred, a crowd that featured a few dozen Vietnamese who immigrated to the area to work in the fishing industry. In a meeting dealing with lost jobs and bureaucracy, there was no crying, no yelling, and very little confrontation.

Question: If you lose out on $10,000 of fishing work because of the spill, and then go work in a furniture shop part time, earning $2,000, do only receive $8,000 in claims money?

Feinberg’s answer: Yes.

Question: If you are losing sleep because of all the cleanup work near your home, and becoming stressed because of it, can you file a claim?

Feinberg: No. “If I accepted claims for anxiety, I’d get claims from people in Montana upset about the spill.”

One woman challenged Feinberg on how BP could ever compensate the emotional damage of interrupting some families’ multiple-generation history working as fishermen. Feinberg gave a what-can-ya-do shrug and said “there’s not enough money in the world” to pay for all the damage created by the spill.

And so the meeting went, question by question, until Feinberg departed for another town hall meeting in western New Orleans.

Many fishermen stuck around afterward and expressed minor skepticism about the payouts, but some were generally pleased with BP.

“Nobody’s cryin’ and screamin’, because BP stepped up and gave us $5,000,” said Clayton Mareno, who fished crab, shrimp and shark before the spill. “I think it’s time for people to take their focus off BP and put it on the federal government,” which he said should provide more cleanup supplies.

Patrick Hue, 49, who fished for shrimp, crab and fin fish, was ambivalent about the compensation.

“Do you want to go clean up oil and risk catchin’ cancer, or do you want to stay at home and collect the same money?” he said.

I asked him what he was currently doing now that he wasn’t fishing.

“Aw, I ain’t doin’ nothin’ man, except goin’ crazy,” he said. “I just sit at home. Mowin’ the grass. Mowin’ the grass. Mowin’ the grass.”

Fifty-year parish resident Helen Saucier, 78, wasn’t surprised at the resilient attitudes of many of those who attended the meeting.

“We’ve been through quite a bit down here, and we certainly didn’t need an oil spill, but that’s life,” she said. “We’ll survive.”

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