Gulf Coast Residents Face Claims Deadline

Tuesday is the final day to ask for emergency financial help from BP. The oil company set up a $20 billion dollar compensation fund for people who experienced losses due to the three month oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Today is the final day to ask for emergency financial help from BP. The oil company set up a $20 billion compensation fund for people who experienced losses due to the months-long oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been reporting on the claims process, and joins us now to talk about it. Good morning.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Who exactly are the people filing these claims?

ELLIOTT: You know, it's all different kinds of people. And there are more than 400,000 of them. You know, people who have lost their earnings. And then you also have businesses, ranging from small business owners like wedding planners who organize beach weddings, to the folks who own the shrimp fleets that go out into the Gulf of Mexico - anyone who thinks they have lost their earnings or profits over the summer.

MONTAGNE: And again, this is a deadline for emergency payments. Does that mean no one can collect damages after this date?

ELLIOTT: No, it does not. And that is something that's been a little bit confusing for people. This emergency process is intended for money that was lost over the summer, anything that you lost over the last six months because of the BP oil spill. And then it was intended, by Ken Feinberg, the claims czar - the person that President Obama assigned to oversee this huge compensation fund - he had hoped that then it would come into the final claims process; that people would be willing to sign away their right to sue BP in exchange for a final lump sum cash payment.

Well, it's become clear, as this deadline approached, it's just too soon for that. You know, cleanup is still under way on many parts of the Gulf Coast, and it's off season, there is not a lot of fishing going on, there aren't a lot of tourists on the coast right now. So, it's a little too soon for people to be calculating whether their business is going to come back, and they want to wait a little bit longer. And Feinberg says OK, fine. I'll make some midcourse corrections. I'll give you up to three years to make that final calculation before you have to decide to finally give up your right to sue.

I spoke with him yesterday, and here's what he said.

Mr. KENNETH FEINBERG (Attorney): My goal here, is to try and make claimants who can document their damage, whole. And if that means interim payments, emergency payments, a final lump sum payment - there's something to be said for finality, I must say - that's up to each claimant to make that decision.

MONTAGNE: OK, so claims czar Ken Feinberg, he's repeatedly come under fire for how the claims process works, though; what is the problem?

ELLIOTT: You know, there have been frustrations all along with this process. Some businesses say that they're only getting a fraction of what their claims have been, that they're not getting enough money to stay in business.

There was a letter, just Friday, from the Justice Department, outlining a number of concerns, and noting that these payments are critical to the restoration of the Gulf Coast. At one point, Alabama Governor Bob Riley likened the process to extortion, complaining that people are getting these low emergency payments, and in effect, be forced into a final settlement.

Feinberg says, yes, there have been some problems and the criticisms are justified, but look, we never anticipated the scope of this - 400,000 claims in 90 days. And he says, you know, so far, we have been generous. We'd gotten about $2 billion out in payments already.

MONTAGNE: Debbie, thanks very much.

ELLIOTT: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Debbie Elliott, reporting from Orange Beach, Alabama.

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