Charities Seek Help for Gulf Coast Victims

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Problems are not over for fishermen and their families, or for the nonprofits that are trying to help the Gulf Coast recover from its latest catastrophe. Without assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the charities are relying on BP and private donors. But charities say they are out of money and have yet to hear from BP about a request for more funding they sent it almost 2 months ago.

     Long-term studies on the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska paint a bleak picture of long, painful recovery, with escalating alcoholism, depression, domestic violence and a spike in suicides.
     Today, Gulf Coast organizations such as Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of New Orleans are gathering stories and statistics of their own from fishermen and other Gulf Coast workers.
     “This has been the perfect storm in the worst way. This has been the worst confluence of disasters,” said Tom Costanza, executive director for Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans Office of Justice and Peace.
     Costanza, 58, chose his words carefully to explain the financial situation of Catholic Charities and other local nonprofits.
     “We’ve run out of money. I’m hopeful we’re going to get more,” he said.
     “In a normal disaster you have disaster food stamps, disaster unemployment benefits, disaster mental health assistance, disaster case management, all in addition to FEMA individual assistance,” Costanza said.
     All those services are administered through the FEMA under the Stafford Act. But the Obama administration has not invoked the Stafford Act, because it relies on taxpayer money, so the burden falls upon BP, through its claims process.
     Not having access to FEMA is “whole new ground in disaster recovery,” Costanza said.
     On Monday, BP announced that it will give $52 million to support behavioral health across the Gulf Coast, with $15 million going to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.
     Costanza said that while behavioral health is important, Catholic Charities and other organizations are worried about securing enough money to fund comprehensive benefits – employment, education, case management, food and direct assistance for rent and mortgages, utilities and other expenses.
     Costanza had another solution if the Stafford Act can’t be invoked: “We’ve got to go to the oil spill trust fund,” he said.
     The fund was signed into law in August 1990, in response to the Exxon Valdez spill, under the then newly enacted Oil Pollution Act. It now holds about $1.6 billion, which is managed through the National Pollution Funds Center.
     Its Chief of Programs Branch John Baker said in an interview that the fund is set up to assist in specific oil spill-related endeavors, such as oil removal.
     Baker said the fund cannot be spent on human recovery, though the law might be amended to make such a thing possible.
     “We don’t even do pain and suffering or personal injury,” Baker said.
     BP seconded that, in a statement that cited the Oil Pollution Act as the basis for its claims process: “BP’s claims process is guided by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.”
     Costanza praised BP’s prompt initial funding to Catholic Charities. Soon after the disaster began on April 20, BP gave Catholic Charities $25,000, followed it up with $1 million.
     Costanza, who worked in human recovery after hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike, has just returned from Haiti, where Catholic Relief Services has been helping earthquake victims.
     Costanza called the Gulf Coast oil spill “the perfect storm in the worst way.”
     He said that $700,000 of money BP gave to Catholic Charities has been spent on food vouchers, but added it might have been better spent on helping out-of-work fishermen pay rent, utilities and other expenses.
     Costanza said Louisiana has tried three times to invoke disaster food stamps, and the federal government denied it all three times.
     What the federal government has done, according to Trey Williams, director of Communications and External Affairs with the Louisiana Department of Children & Family Services, is to create an emergency rule that waived the ordinary resource test in applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.
     This means the department does not require a family to disclose how much money they have in the bank or how much have collected in claims from BP. All they have to prove is monthly income.
     “It’s a Catch-22,” said Benny Puckett, grant administrator for Plaquemines Parish. If a fisherman can’t fish but gets even a part-time job working for BP, then he cannot get food assistance, even if the money he is making is only half what he needs.
     Williams said that since May the Department of Children & Family Services has seen a rise in applicants for food stamps, many of whom are “people who have worked the coast and have been working on their boats and have never had to turn to the government for assistance before.”
     Williams said the department is worried that some would-be applicants are too embarrassed to seek benefits.
     An analysis of BP claims paid to fishermen conducted by Catholic Charities, using data obtained through BP, indicates that BP claims payments are keeping fishermen and their families just above subsistence poverty.
     The documents show that the oystermen, shrimpers, crabbers and fin fishermen received average payments of $2,143 per month, which would total $25,724 in a year, since the April 20 disaster.
     An unemployed head of household relying on the claims process to substitute one year’s loss of income would receive just above the federal poverty level of $22,050 for a family of four.
     Catholic Charities’ data warns that with the continued reduction in BP check amounts and the possibility of a lump sum payment from Kenneth Feinberg, the appointee in charge of overseeing the $20 billion BP escrow fund, most people will need to adjust to lower income levels while balancing expenses and debt.
     BP issued a statement regarding its delay in giving additional funding to Catholic Charities: “We are proud of the partnership we’ve had with Catholic Charities. They were first on the ground and provided immediate assistance to those in need. Our partnership allowed them to expand their efforts to seven parishes. We have received many proposals with similar requests: a federal proposal from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a state proposal from Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, a proposal from the American Red Cross and a local request from Catholic Charities of New Orleans. We have been in conversations with all parties, hoping to identify the best way to support the community.”
     Costanza responded: “I don’t think the money is the problem. It’s access to it. We know from experience with the Exxon Valdez. The claims process basically keeps people in poverty. But we are hopeful that BP will come through and make it right.
     “Right now it looks like the oyster beds will be down 3 years. We’re not sure if crabs are good. They’ve already spotted oil in the larvae,” Costanza said. He listed some jobs, such as oyster bed restoration and barrier island restoration, which he said the fishermen thought up as a way to keep them on the water in their communities until the oysters and crabs come back – assuming they come back.
     “Basically, we are trying to convince the philanthropic community that we need help,” Costanza said.

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