Gulf Fund Administrator: Listen To The People
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The man responsible for paying out claims in the Gulf oil spill went to Louisiana today. Kenneth Feinberg was appointed administrator of the $20 billion escrow fund by President Obama last week. This was his chance to look Louisianans in the eye, and hear what they've been going through.
NPR's Robert Smith reports from the fishing town of Larose.
ROBERT SMITH: If you heard that someone with $20 billion in his pocket was coming to your town to give out money, you'd show up in an auditorium, too.
Mr. DALLAS MANGUS(ph): That's definitely got my attention, that's for sure.
SMITH: Dallas Mangus runs a furniture shop here, and says that you can sum up Larose, Louisiana, in just three words.
Mr. MANGUS: Fishing and oil, and that's it.
SMITH: And like the other couple hundred people here, he has just one question: Can BP's billions help my struggling business? The crowd is understandably skeptical.
Feinberg works in D.C; he's being paid by BP. Neither two-letter names impress shrimper Derrick Callais. He says he wasted hours in meetings like this after Katrina. So his advice for Feinberg:
Mr. DERRICK CALLAIS (Shrimper): I want him to tell us like it is.
SMITH: Tell it like it is.
Mr. CALLAIS: Like it is, not all that bunch of crap.
SMITH: Even if he's telling you no.
Mr. CALLAIS: If he tells us no, then we'll know we ain't getting nothing, period, finished. We don't have to come to these meetings.
SMITH: Still, all that money does focus one's attention.
Senator MARY LANDRIEU (Democrat, Louisiana): One of the ladies in the back said she's been looking for a rich man. She just might have found one.
SMITH: Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu has been critical of the Obama administration on a lot of things, but she loves Kenneth Feinberg.
Sen. LANDRIEU: He's just been on the job a week, so be a little patient with him, okay?
SMITH: No need. This is where Feinberg shines. Remember, he faced the grief and the wrath of 9/11 families when he did this same job after the terrorist attacks. So he knows the first rule is to leave the arrogance at the door.
Mr. KENNETH FEINBERG (Attorney): A program like this cannot be designed or administered from Washington. You have to come down here, hear what people say, take the time to listen.
(Soundbite of applause)
SMITH: So there he stood, the only man in the whole auditorium wearing a suit jacket, and he listened to shrimpers and oil guys and small businessmen.
Unidentified Woman #1: How are we supposed to feed our families, pay our bills, get to work?
Unidentified Man: Crab meat, nobody wants it anymore because of the perception. So we have nobody to sell the product to.
Unidentified Woman #2: Please quit telling us that you're going to make us whole. There is nothing that can make these communities whole again.
SMITH: Feinberg answered in surprising detail for a man who's only been on the job a week. He told the crowd he'll pay out emergency checks for things like rent and food quickly, but he needs to set up a system for bigger, longer-term claims. When someone got emotional, Feinberg just fixed his eyes on the person and nodded. Dean Blanchard(ph), a seafood supplier, stood up.
Mr. DEAN BLANCHARD (Seafood Supplier): Everything I get up for in the morning is gone. I get up in the morning for 28 years, seven days a week I work, sir. So I don't know what to do with myself. How do you put a price on that?
Mr. FEINBERG: I can't give you that decades of work and sweat that you put into your business. All I can do is sit with you and try and give you the one thing I can give you: compensation.
SMITH: After the meeting, there wasn't much new information on the table. Feinberg had to rush off to the next of what will be many town halls like this. But he left behind a feeling in Larose that something might actually get done.
Darryl Carpenter is president of the Louisiana Charter Boat Association. This is the first time he's seen Feinberg face to face.
Mr. DARRYL CARPENTER (President, Louisiana Charter Boat Association): He seems to be a little more definite in his answers. He comes off as being honest. He comes off as being heartfelt and truthful and - like I said - we're very cautiously optimistic.
SMITH: But if he really wants to fit in here, he's going to have to get a new wardrobe.
Mr. CARPENTER: Well, he's going to have to learn what a pair of Crocs are, and have to get some short pants, I'm sure.
SMITH: Robert Smith, NPR News, Larose, Louisiana.
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