NEW ORLEANS – The oil has stopped flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, and that should be a relief. But with fewer cleanup jobs to be had, many of the people hit hardest by the huge spill are struggling as badly as ever.
Boat captains and deckhands who managed to put food on the table over the summer because they got hired by BP to skim the oil are being dropped from the payroll while huge swaths of the Gulf remain off-limits to those who haul in shrimp, oysters and other seafood.
Now, just when with the environmental and engineering crisis is easing, large charities providing food to coastal communities have run out of money, homeless shelters are filling up with men thrown out of work by the spill, and demand for drug and alcohol counseling is up.
In yet another source of anxiety for fishermen and others, the federal government took over the handling of oil-spill damage claims from BP on Monday, and many people along the Gulf are waiting to see how Obama administration appointee Kenneth Feinberg administers the $20 billion victims compensation fund set up by the company.
Already, there are indications he intends to be stricter than BP in some cases when it comes to handing out checks to individuals and businesses.
The oil company has spent more than $6.1 billion so far in the spill's aftermath, a figure that includes everything from cleaning beaches and drilling relief wells to paying individual claims and giving grants to local governments. BP has paid $399 million to individuals and businesses so far.
Doug Alsem said he went to work on a friend's boat as part of BP's cleanup program after the oil spill dried up business at his marine construction company in Belle Chasse, La. But the crew he worked with was called off a job recently.
"We were out there working and the lady called up ... and said not to come back," Alsem said in Lafitte, La. "Some of these guys are just scratching their heads. They don't know what they're going to do."
Even with most of the oil gone from the surface, more than 52,000 square miles of federal waters in the Gulf remain closed to fishing. And even in places where fishing has resumed, there are fears that people won't want to eat Gulf seafood.
David Chauvin, owner of a Louisiana shrimp processing business that has been shuttered since the spill, has been working with the BP cleanup program. But when that work ends, he is not sure how long it will take for his business to bounce back.
"Even if today, you called me up and said, 'Hey, look, we're opening up all the fishing grounds that were closed prior to the spill,' I don't know where we would sell our shrimp," Chauvin said. "There's such a fear on the market right now."
The oil spill, and its accompanying loss in jobs, have meant a growing need for services like drug and alcohol counseling, according to Scott Sumrall, director of disaster preparedness and response at the Mississippi Department of Mental Health.
"We've seen an increase in substance abuse issues. We've seen an increase in domestic violence," he said. "In a crisis like this, you don't see a big spike right at the beginning. It takes awhile."
At the Waterfront Rescue Mission's homeless shelter in Pensacola, Fla., the spike started about two months ago and shows no sign of letting up. The shelter normally sees fewer occupants during the summer, but this year all 37 beds are full, along with 21 mats normally reserved for severe weather.
Many at the shelter are new in town, former fishermen and deckhands from the region who were drawn to Pensacola by the prospect of long-term jobs on cleanup crews, said program director Jason Grizzard.
"There were people who were predicting this wasn't going to be cleaned up for several years, and these guys were thinking, 'Man, I'm going to be able to work for a while,'" he said. "Now that the oil spill is essentially over, they're kind of stuck."
The BP program that hired fishing vessels for cleanup work often paid well. Boat owners reported earning between $1,400 to $2,000 a day and sometimes more, depending on the size of the boat. Now that income is drying up.
At Sportsman Marina on Perdido Bay in Orange Beach, Ala., only 40 or so boats are still going out daily to scout for oil, down from a high of as many as 120 a day earlier in the summer, according to general manager Brian Wells.
Some participants were angry to learn that the money that they made in the cleanup program will be deducted from any checks they receive from the government-administered fund.
"We chose, from the beginning, to get out there and to try to make a difference, to save our fishing grounds," Chauvin said.
Associated Press reporters Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss., Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala., and Jeffrey S. Collins in Grand Isle, La., contributed to this story.