Ga. oil spill victims fear they'll be forgotten

Mark Link, a Midtown attorney, is one of the hundreds of metro Atlantans who own vacation property along the Gulf Coast.

Now that the well has been capped, he worries more about what may happen next: That as the images of spewing oil and petroleum-soaked wildlife disappear, so will the urgency to restore the Gulf Coast to its pristine condition. That businesses will fail and property values will spiral once others lose interest in their plight. That there is precedence for this sort of major disaster neglect.

“Once the national spotlight is off, people forget,” Link said.

From 400 miles overhead, satellites have sent images assuring everyone that the surface oil in the Gulf is disappearing. President Barack Obama and BP have pledged to stay involved until all of the oil is cleaned up, all legitimate claims are paid and that those hurt are made whole.

And White House spokesman Robert Gibbs recently told reporters: “I think it is fairly safe to say that because of the environmental effects of Mother Nature, the warm waters of the Gulf and the federal response, that many of the doomsday scenarios that were talked about and repeated a lot have not and will not come to fruition because of that.”

Not everyone, though, is comforted that the end of the distress is near; certainly not the Atlantans whose business is directly related to the Gulf.

“BP wants you to believe that the worst is over,” said Bill Demmond, CEO of Atlanta-based Inland Seafood. “But where did all the oil go?”

Demmond estimated his company has lost as much as $75,000 a week; oysters have been a total loss.

Under pressure from the White House, BP is paying $20 billion into a fund to compensate victims of the Gulf oil spill. Kenneth R. Feinberg, a prominent attorney from Washington D.C., is the fund administrator. People, businesses or other groups that have been adversely affected by the spill can apply to Feinberg starting today.

So much has happened since April 20, when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank 50 miles offshore and 11 men were killed. As oil coated the Gulf Coast, the country watched as BP scrambled to find a solution, an untested technology, anything to halt the unabated gusher.

Americans acquired a new lexicon, from “static kill” to “junk shots” to “containment domes.” Summer homeowners and yearlong residents reeled from the closed fisheries, empty restaurants and vacant hotels. Invariably politics were brought in for blame.

This disaster was described as “Obama’s Katrina,” with critics suggesting the White House response to the oil spill was as slow and ponderous as the immediate attention given a hurricane-ravaged New Orleans and Gulf Coast, that nothing was learned from one disaster to the next.

Yet property owners will tell you they have more on their minds than the next election cycle.

Business partners Lee Gall and Leo Cook are metro Atlantans who have watched helplessly as their Okaloosa Island beachfront property, purchased in 2008 and steadily rented during peak seasons the past two years, has sat vacant all summer once vacationers abruptly canceled reservations.

“The place literally was rented from day one,” said Cook, a Marietta attorney. “The bottom fell out after the oil spill.”

Gall and Cook previously counted on $1,000 in weekly rent for their Florida property. Now they’re the only ones unlocking the condominium door and gazing at the crystal-blue waters that appear untouched by oil and sludge.

As a result, they are the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit that involves only Atlantans with Gulf Coast interests, potentially as many as 50, and was filed last month by Atlanta firm Taylor English Duma.

Impatient with BP’s response to their needs, these Georgians have asked to be reimbursed for property value loss as well as lost rental income.

Jonathan Wilson, an attorney with Taylor English Duma, said his clients were dealing with the financial fallout from the national recession as it related to their Gulf Coast holdings when the oil spill made a bigger mess of things.

“If you were a property owner trying to recover in 2010 after the bad year that was 2009, the oil spill was pretty much a kick in the teeth,” Wilson said.

And so it goes along the coast:

Property owners question whether a region long admired for its resilience might have been pushed beyond repair, that the experts aren’t telling everything that they know. These frustrated people don’t want BP to go; yet, they are totally fed up with the spill, the cleanup and the disruption of everything familiar.

They just want their lives back.

Bonnie Henry, an Atlanta architect, owns three rental properties in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. She filed claims with BP in June that haven’t been filled. She isn’t backing off, though, even after forced to deal with five claims adjusters and watch the rules change intermittently.

Mostly, she longs for a return to normalcy, which would require blinders for some people in the Gulf but not for others.

“It’s kind of a double-sided story,” Henry said. “The fishermen and the people who work in the water definitely shouldn’t be forgotten.

“But for the tourism industry, we’re happy if it’s forgotten because people will return.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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