Recovery should be our main concern

Published 9:25 pm Wednesday, July 20, 2011

By David Colston

Alabama has suffered more than its share of natural disasters over the past year. From the worst man made disaster in state history with the BP oil spill to our worst natural disaster in April with the tornadoes, it has been a rough time.

Those record tornadoes killed more than 240 people and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. The storms also hit the state economy, with officials indicating that the state’s Gross Domestic Product was reduced between $835 million and $1.3 billion.  Between 5,600 and 13,200 jobs were lost.

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Hopefully, as cleanup finishes and rebuilding begins, those jobs will return. Economists at the University of Alabama say recovery efforts will create an economic impact exceeding the tornado damage, creating 51,700 jobs and gaining $2.9 billion in GDP.

An economic turnaround has been seen on the Gulf Coast this summer, a far cry from the lost season of 2010. State tourism officials report that occupancy rates for rentals and hotels are at or near capacity, and the hospitality industry of restaurants, tourist shops and attractions has seen a surge of customers. The state fisheries have also made an important comeback. Commercial fishermen are back out in the water, and catches are up. Sales have increased too, with a state coordinated effort called “Alabama Wild Seafood,” an ad campaign that includes all types of domestic seafood caught and processed in the state.

Just this past weekend, the 78th Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo achieved the world record as the largest fishing tournament in the world. More than 2,200 participants went through the checkpoint. The wildly successful event is just another indication of the bounce back of the charter and pleasure fishing industries. Another bit of good news, the FDA cleared as safe all the fish caught in the rodeo, as well as clearing most seafood caught commercially.

It is hard to believe that this time last year, the runaway oil well spill had just been capped for the first time. It had gone on for months, gushing crude into the pristine waters of the gulf and washing up tar onto our beaches. It destroyed the tourism economy for the season, and crippled the commercial fishing industry. Now in the midst of good economic news about the coast recovery, it seems that BP may be trying to back away from its responsibilities. In court papers it filed recently, BP outlined a list of indicators of “the strength of the gulf economy,” stating “there is no basis to assume that claimants, with very limited exceptions, will incur a future loss related to the spill.” What this filing was addressing is a formula set up for the $20 billion BP spill compensation fund that provides double the losses from businesses and individuals for 2010. The idea is that there were direct losses then and future losses because of the lost opportunity and lingering environmental effects. What the oil giant is trying to do is limit its payouts by saying everything is back to normal. This BP shift comes on the heals of some of Alabama’s largest home insurance carriers announcing major withdrawals of coverage for thousands of policyholders.

The state’s second largest insurer, ALFA, said it will not renew 73,000 property insurance policies statewide following the tornadoes. While the insurer said that a majority of the policies affected are for rental houses, some traditional homeowners and manufactured home and fire policies will also be terminated.

It is clear that strong oversight for BP and insurance companies is critical right now to make sure they are held accountable for their actions. If the state does not have the means and leverage to ensure fair treatment of its citizens after these disasters, it is up to the governor to call a special session of the Legislature to make sure the laws are in place. A disaster is a disaster, whether it is natural or man-made. Our response to them should always be one of fairness for people affected, and accountability for those who bear tresponsibility.