The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Tornado Outbreak 2011

July 17, 2011

FEMA officials make last call for storm aid applications

— By Jeff Byard and Michael Byrne

Guest columnnists

Thousands were left homeless and 251 died as a result of the April 15 and 27 storms and tornadoes that ripped through Alabama. As a result, a staggering 85,200 disaster survivors have applied for financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Incredible progress toward recovery is being made in only a little more than the two months since. As examples, we're pleased to report that already about $44 million has been approved for housing assistance and $17.5 million for other needs, such as medical, dental and funeral expenses. Also, more than 8.2 million cubic yards of debris has been removed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, private contractors and local governments. In addition, the U.S. Small Business Administration has approved more than $68 million in low-interest disaster assistance loans to homeowners, renters, businesses and private nonprofits.

But many disaster survivors have not returned their SBA disaster loan applications, and by not returning completed applications to the SBA disaster survivors may not have the funds they need to fully recover.

What we hear most often when we ask disaster survivors why they haven't returned their applications is that they want a grant, not a loan. But FEMA grant assistance only covers short-term needs — it is not intended for long-term recovery. That's where the SBA low-interest disaster loan comes into play. For many disaster survivors, the SBA disaster loan will be their primary means of federal assistance for long-term recovery.

Disaster loans up to $200,000 are available to homeowners to repair or replace disaster-damaged or destroyed real estate. Homeowners and renters are eligible for up to $40,000 to repair or replace disaster-damaged or destroyed personal property, including automobiles. SBA loans are available with rates as low as 2.563 percent for homeowners and renters, 3 percent for private nonprofits and 4 percent for businesses in the designated counties. Also, SBA loans have repayment terms that may be offered for up to 30 years. Refinancing options may be available in certain cases for disaster-affected homes with mortgages. SBA accepts applications before insurance is settled, even if survivors are uncertain about their final plans.

Homeowners and renters who don't want a loan should return their completed SBA application. If SBA cannot approve a home loan, the individual may be referred to FEMA for grant consideration to replace essential household items, replace or repair a damaged vehicle or cover storage expenses, among other serious disaster-related needs. No one is obligated to accept a loan, but returning completed applications to SBA could be the basis for grant referrals to FEMA.

Stated simply, while FEMA assistance can help survivors get back on their feet, it will not give them enough to fully recover their losses. So if a disaster survivor doesn't submit the loan application to SBA, the assistance process stops.

Some counties reported a low number of SBA loan application returns. So, we are working with faith-based and community-based organizations and businesses, along with voluntary agencies, to get the word out.

Survivors can call the SBA toll free at 800-659-2955 or (800-877-8339 TTY) Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. CDT for assistance with the application process. They can complete an online application at SBA's secure website, https://DisasterLoan.SBA.gov/ELA or download it from www.sba.gov.

After the July 18 deadline it will be too late to register for aid. So please, everyone needs to take responsibility for their own recovery and let us help.

Jeff Byard is the state coordinating officer and Michael Byrne is the federal coordinating officer for the disaster recovery effort under way in Alabama.

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