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BP money flows into Pinellas County

Spring Break is over, and tons of money is still rolling into Pinellas County, but now it is as a result of the 2010 BP oil spill.

"A lot of the significant sums are now being paid," Houston attorney Tony Buzbee told FOX 13 News.

Buzbee represents thousands of plaintiffs, including more than 100 in Pinellas County. His firm was part of a giant settlement process reached with BP a few weeks ago.

By his estimate, checks totaling more than $100 million have been written the past two or three weeks -- and more is on the way.

"I would say of my clients, probably only about 25 percent have received their final payments," Buzbee said.

He also thinks hundreds of local businesses have not bothered to file a claim. According to the attorney, "There's probably exponentially more money sitting on the table that is there to be accessed by businesses with legitimate claims that can be documented."

The checks come in all sizes, ranging from thousands for workers who lost wages to millions for large resorts.

Individual settlements are shielded by non-disclosure agreements, but Trade Winds Island Resorts general manager Keith Overton suspects he deposited one of the largest.

"We suffered for a long time, and we made a lot of decisions that we didn't want to make that were not in the best interest of our company," Overton said. "Now that this money is here, it gives us the flexibility and the comfort level to really start operating at a normal level again."

Overton noted the difficulty in establishing losses, but he is satisfied his case is now closed in a little more than two years.

"In the end, you just have to say okay, I think it was fair, they paid it and move on. The good news is, it's behind us now, I don't think we have to talk about it anymore," he said.

Back in one of the resort's kitchens, cook Mike Doane recalls months of lost wages.

"Four days a week instead of five, and six hours a day instead of eight," Doane said. "It really did impact me as far as paying the bills and making sure that I had enough money to feed my family."

Doane received a $10,000 intermediate settlement last September, but expects to receive a final check any day now. When it arrives, he will help fuel the local economy. The cook recited his wish list: "I need a washer and dryer, maybe a newer car, and I would like a dishwasher for the house."

Lisa Dressel, owner of the Lemon Tree Spa, is still working six days a week and keeping her business open seven days a week to make up for revenue lost to the oil spill.

She looks forward to "getting her life back," but also plans to spend her settlement.

"I'll spend it on the business because definitely there's always something new that we want to do," she said.

The Trade Winds general manager also foresees a ripple effect through the Pinellas economy.

"It gives the business owners the confidence to do the things that they've always wanted to do with regards to capital improvements, amenities, staffing levels," Overton said.

The BP cash is also flowing in on the heels of a record-setting winter tourist season. Pinellas is the busiest destination on the Gulf of Mexico. Even though oil from the spill never came close to Tampa Bay, many tourists unfamiliar with Florida geography stayed away, with cancellations coming within days of the start of the prolonged oil spill.

 

Steve Nichols
Fox 13
May 9, 2012
St. Petersburg, Florida