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Gulf oil spill: BP ahead of the curve in Florida panhandle

May 11, 2010 |  6:17 pm
In a small, one-story office building on a busy road in Panama City, Fla., a handwritten sign taped on the door was the only indication of the business inside: BP.

Inside, the BP community outreach center was still being put together. The conference room lacked a table and the furniture in the staff office was still in boxes; one employee sat on a pile of boxes and used another to prop up his laptop.

The outreach and claims center – one of many in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana that have been opened by BP in gulf communities since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – is a place for volunteers, those with boats for hire and residents looking for answers. Eight have opened in Florida alone.

The first center opened in Louisiana, and they have moved east as the danger of oil slick has, a spokeswoman said.“It is completely about community,” said BP spokeswoman Vani Rao, who will work from the Panama City office. “I don’t know if you would call it generically PR; it is completely community. People don’t want a 1-800 number to call.”

“It wasn’t part of us trying to ward off negativity, it was part of our community commitment,” added Liz Castro, another BP spokeswoman in Florida.

On Tuesday, before it even officially opened, a stream of men, faces and arms tan from days spent on the water, walked in looking to drop off contracts or pick one up for the Vessels of Opportunity program, in which people with boats or other vessels will be contracted with BP to possibly transport supplies or people or help with cleanup on an as-needed basis.

Steve Barnett, a longtime Panama City resident, came by in the afternoon and left minutes later with a rolled-up contract in his hand. He regularly fishes in the waters around the area and takes fishing trips to Venice, La., currently right in the path of the oil slick.

“I’m very concerned about the situation, so that’s the reason I’m doing this, so I can help,” said Barnett, who is in the steel business. “It’s not for the money.”

On a recent trip to Venice with his son and two others, he caught blackfin tuna, amberjack and king mackerel. He has a 21-foot flat bottom skiff that can navigate in shallow waters, something that could be useful if the oil came near these Florida shores, he said. “I’m going to help one way or the other,” he said.

Once the center opens here though, BP representatives expect more than just those looking for a way to help with the oil spill relief and cleanup efforts. Many of the outreach offices also will be a place where people can file claims against BP, and the president of the company has said publicly that it will pay all “legitimate” claims.

One room of the Panama City office will have posters up explaining terms like booming and berms and be a place where residents can ask questions. And express concern or anger.

“That’s why we’re here,” Rao said. “People want someone to talk to, and if part of that is being yelled at, that’s why we’re here.”

-- Raja Abdulrahim
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