Ronald Polkey, a sun-weathered shrimp boat captain from the Louisiana resort and fishing hub of Grand Isle, La., should be out on the water working his nets to bring in a day’s catch.
But with most of the region’s shrimping grounds shut down due to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, he was one of dozens of local fishermen waiting in line at the town’s community center Wednesday, hoping oil giant BP will cut him a check.
“We’re screwed this year for shrimp,” Polkey, 42, said quietly in a thick Cajun accent. “I took all the nets off my boat.”
London-based BP is the owner of the ruptured undersea well that is gushing unchecked at a rate of 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/ per day, swelling a huge oil slick that threatens fishing grounds, beaches and wildlife refuges along the Gulf Coast.
Fishing has been banned across a huge swath of Gulf waters, and thousands of fishermen are being forced to choose between staying idle or signing up to work on the oil containment operation.
U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, D-La., previously called for BP to provide financial support to commercial fishermen in the Gulf who have been affected by the oil disaster.
Polkey said he left a temporary job when BP offered to hire him at $2,000 a day for spill mitigation work.
But a week later he is still waiting for the oil company to put him to work, effectively required to stay put because he already has filled his boat with BP-supplied fuel for the job.
“I feel bad. I can’t make any money,” he said.
Polkey said he frets about what the oil spill, spewing uncontrolled from a ruptured wellhead since April 20, will do to shrimp fishing in the long run.
“All my life, that’s what I do. That’s my living. My Daddy, my brother, we’re all commercial fishermen … . I don’t know nothing else,” he said.
Polkey waited for his number to be called in the muggy sunshine outside the Grand Isle community center, one of numerous sites set up by BP along the Gulf Coast to process small, short-term economic loss claims.
Applicants are told to bring their recent tax returns, identification, commercial licenses and boat registration with them, and are promised a check for up to $5,000 within 24 hours for bona fide claims.
‘Help Pay May’s Bills’
The company has said applicants need not sign any waiver of liability for future claims, a big concern earlier in the crisis.
“If I have to waive my rights, they can keep the money,” said Terry Vegas, 51, who showed up to submit a claim on behalf of her husband, a shrimp boat captain who now works under contract for BP for spill cleanup.
Vegas, an office administrator in town, said $5,000 pales in comparison to the financial losses her family faces.
“It’ll help pay May’s bills,” she said. “I haven’t gotten beyond today, because if you look too far ahead … ,” she added, her voice trailing off. “Two years from now, three years from now, we’re still going to be feeling the effects.”
Like many places along the Louisiana coast, Grand Isle is still recovering from a series of devastating storms, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and back-to-back hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008, which wrecked the town.
“Our entire infrastructure was wiped out. We had a lot of flooding, and now this,” Vegas said.
With tourism to the island thrown back into a slump just when the travel season should be heating up, charter fishing boat operators are seeing their business take a beating.
“This is supposed to be the height, right now,” said Joel Bradberry, 39, a charter boat captain.
The island has roughly 1,500 year-round residents, but draws many visitors — 100,000 alone for an annual fishing tournament called the Tarpon Rodeo.
Bradberry said that instead of booking trips for the usual May-through-August season, “the only calls we’re getting are cancellation calls.”
He stood in line for three hours to submit his claim. “I’ll probably get paid this afternoon or tomorrow,” he said. (Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Xavier Briand)
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