The South has been dealt a heavy blow this summer by BP's gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil has stopped flowing, but Gulf states are still dealing with the ongoing economic and environmental damage.
State leaders want to be sure BP cleans up the mess and gets the region back on its feet. It was was one of the main topics being discussed at the Southern Governors' Association annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala.
BP's Robert Dudley, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen and claims czar Kenneth Feinberg came to reassure Southern governors they are on the job.
Dudley says engineers are close to permanently killing the well but also says that won't be the end of this saga. "Much of course remains to be done," Dudley told the audience. "The capping of the well has led to speculation that BP is prepared to pack up and go home. That's not on my agenda. We have said we will make this right and we will."
He says the company will be able to restore public trust only if it does what's necessary to restore the region. BP is a lead sponsor of the Southern Governors' Association.
Alabama Republican Bob Riley was the sole Gulf Coast governor on hand to question the panel. Others, including Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and Haley Barbour of Mississippi, were back home commemorating the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which the region is still struggling to overcome.
Riley says that's telling about what's ahead in the wake of the oil spill.
"When you look back over the last five years and you begin to understand that we're still dealing with so many things that we thought would have been completed by now," Riley said, "I think that that is a great prelude into a conversation about where do we go from here."
National incident commander Allen says the federal response will soon devolve into a regional recovery structure. "What we are basically trying to get to with every state and local government entity is to decide how clean is clean," Allen said.
Riley says the first step to economic recovery is to get money in the hands of people who have lost income because of the oil spill.
Feinberg took over the claims process a week ago and says he has already authorized $6 million worth of emergency payments to 1,200 individuals. The biggest obstacle, he says, is a lack of documentation to show what's been lost.
"Nothing will judge this program more than the speed at which I process the claims," Feinberg told the group. "My dilemma right now that I've got to confront, not Gov. Riley, and not the governors, and not the attorneys general, is how to deal with the absence of proof."
Riley says that should have been figured out by now. "We've been having this discussion now for going on three months. And the immediacy of this problem to the people who are most affected — they need relief and they need this now."
The governors will look to the future at Monday's session with White House officials and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. He's been charged by President Obama with developing a long-term restoration plan for the region.
The states also want to know the administration's plans for lifting a moratorium on new deep-water drilling.